Debating Ogg Theora and H.264

Since the big HTML 5 news that there will be no defined codec for <audio/> or <video/> there has been a lot of discussion about the merits of such a decision, and what led to it. To quote Ian Hickson’s email:

Apple refuses to implement Ogg Theora in Quicktime by default (as used by Safari), citing lack of hardware support and an uncertain patent landscape.

Google has implemented H.264 and Ogg Theora in Chrome, but cannot provide the H.264 codec license to third-party distributors of Chromium, and have indicated a belief that Ogg Theora’s quality-per-bit is not yet suitable for the volume handled by YouTube.

Opera refuses to implement H.264, citing the obscene cost of the relevant patent licenses.

Mozilla refuses to implement H.264, as they would not be able to obtain a license that covers their downstream distributors.

Microsoft has not commented on their intent to support

I think everyone agrees this is going nowhere and isn’t likely to change in the near future. For the sake of moving HTML5 forward, this is likely the best decision.

Here’s how I interpret everyone’s position:

Apple’s Argument

One of the undeniable perks behind H.264 right now is that there is hardware decoding available and used on on certain devices. One of the most notable is the iPhone. Using hardware decoding means your not using the CPU which results in better performance, and most importantly better battery life.

Thus far there’s no hardware Theora decoder on the market (if you know of any let me know, my research says none), which I suspect is why Apple is hesitant to jump on board. Until there’s hardware that’s proven to perform well, be cost-effective in the quantities Apple needs, and not be bombarded with patent infringement claims, I suspect they’d rather settle with H.264. The patent part is critical. Apple can update software to comply with patent wars pretty quickly, as many other companies have done with software in the past. Hardware is not so easy. Last minute hardware changes are harder to deal with than software because of the many things it impacts, and the inability to update at a later date.

I’m almost positive the lack of hardware support is the exact same reason Apple has been so against Flash support. Remember the YouTube application isn’t using VP6 like regular flash, it’s using H.264 (that’s why it took so long for all of YouTube to be available on the iPhone).

If there’s enough Theora content out there, there will likely be Theora decoder hardware made to meet market demand. To get to this point will be difficult with the amount of VP6 (Flash) and H.264 content already on the web. H.264 alone has a major head start in applications. VP6 has several years of video on the web now (and I still don’t think it has a hardware decoder on the market though that might be due to licensing again).

In the long run, I think mobile technology will improve enough to make this a somewhat unnecessary constraint. Mobile CPU’s and GPU’s are just starting to get to the caliber needed for video. Performance per watt should improve. Battery technology is just starting to get pushed to the limits. This is a good thing for Theora in the long run, but the question is how long?

Until it can be played with minimal impact on battery life, I don’t think any company who has a heavy investment in mobile will want to jump on board.

Google’s Argument

Google has money and can license H.264. Shocker. Google however has trouble when it comes to Chromium. I suspect Google doesn’t care too much about which way this goes since what they support in Chrome doesn’t mandate that YouTube support it. However if the encoding quality for a given bitrate is good enough, it becomes a viable option.

Regarding the quality argument, I’ll simply point to this comparison. I the quality today is comparable already, and likely to get better as the encoders improve. I’ll leave this discussion here.

Opera’s Argument

Opera says H.264 is to expensive to license. I don’t know what the costs are, and what they would be for Opera, but I’ll take their word on it. After all, the do have a product available for free download. While commercial and closed source, they don’t have Google’s revenue stream and I respect that.

Mozilla’s Argument

Mozilla can’t license for downstream Gecko use etc. I’m sure a good part of the argument is also that requiring licensing fees to use <video/> is bad for the web and open source. I agree.

Microsoft’s Argument

No comment. Historically they implemented <marquee/> but not the <blink/>. Make of that what you will.

<video/> could be supported by plugin if needed. I recall Adobe supporting SVG by plugin a few years ago.

Where to go from here?

I think there are a few possible outcomes. As for what I think are the most likely:

  1. There’s a push for hardware decoding that makes Theora on mobile technically possible and working well. If Apple legally is satisfied and jumps on board that changes the game. As I stated earlier I think Google is mostly ambivalent since they support both right now. Opera doesn’t want H.264 anyway, so they are cool. IE 8 can likely be handled by a plugin. Apple really is the deciding factor. Theora is the future.
  2. See what the web does. I suspect at least for a long while the web will just stick with Flash since it works on almost all desktops. For mobile the iPhone and Android make up pretty much the bulk of the mobile video market and that doesn’t look like it’s changing so fast. Content providers that want mobile will encode for mobile. That means 3 target platforms, not ideal but reasonable. H.264 and whatever Adobe adopts is the future.

I know how the media is interpreting all of this. How do other developers, and open source folks see it?

Rebreaking The Web

It’s happening again. Once upon a time, browser vendors started adding their own features without consulting with each other and agreeing upon standards. What they created was a giant mess of inconsistencies across browsers and platforms that is still in effect today. Ask any web developer and they can tell you of the pains that they have suffered trying to make seemingly trivial things work everywhere consistently. It’s no easy task. Before IE 7, even an ajax required something along the lines of:

var httpRequest;
if (window.XMLHttpRequest) { // Mozilla, Safari, …
    httpRequest = new XMLHttpRequest();
} else if (window.ActiveXObject) { // IE
    httpRequest = new ActiveXObject("Microsoft.XMLHTTP");
}

That’s right, IE 6 didn’t support the native xmlHttpRequest object (more here). This is just one of many examples in JavaScript and CSS. document.all anyone?

The end result of this problem became to be known as the “Web Standards” movement. Simply put it’s an idea that code should follow a standard that results in consistent output across all browsers on various platforms. Write once, run anywhere. While it’s taken years for this to manifest, it’s slowly become a reality. Firefox, Safari, Opera have fairly consistent rendering (at least in comparison to the mess of just a few years ago on the browser scene. IE 6 was fairly poor in terms of modern web development, but IE 7 made progress, and IE 8 is Microsoft’s greatest effort to date to bring their browser up to speed.

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Meta Stupidity Followup

In the past day I’ve been doing a fair amount of reading on what others think of this meta stupidity. A few suggested remedies are particularly good and worth a post linking to. My two favorites both from Mozilla hackers are these:

David Baron has a must read blog post. Since the bulk of these older sites are on intranets, why not just allow administrators to enable compatibility mode on intranets? Seems like a perfectly logical solution that doesn’t hold back the web, and allows them to achieve their goals.

Daniel Glazman has another idea that I think is very valid.

  • Microsoft should freeze, and I really mean it, its current IE6/IE7 HTML 4 engines, and drop that META tag idea.

Ditto. That needs to be a very deep and reliable freeze though.