Analysis: Royalty-free H.264 may clear way for HTML5 video standard

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MPEG LA, the firm that controls licensing for a number of video and other standards, announced on Thursday that it will never charge any royalties for Internet video encoded using the H.264 standard that Apple favors, as long as that video is free to end-users.

This is great news, even if it’s wrapped in some technical language. When you watch video on your Mac (or your iPhone, iPad, or any other device), it’s been encoded using one of many standards. Just as with popular audio formats like MP3 and AAC, video formats aim to find the sweet spot between video quality and file size—they want to get as high as they can on the former, and as low as they can on the latter.

Much of the video on the Web these days is presented via Adobe’s Flash technology—for example, YouTube’s standard, ubiquitous video player. As most iOS users know, Flash video doesn’t work with iPhones and iPads. And even on your Mac, watching Flash video requires use of Adobe’s Flash plug-in, which many Mac users (including famous ones) find a bit buggy.

As Apple has pointed out, many popular Websites have made the move to support HTML5 video alongside or, in some cases, instead of Flash. HTML5 is the latest and greatest version of the Web’s core markup language. The new HTML5 standard makes it possible for Websites to embed video that your computer can play without requiring a third-party plugin (like Flash).

Representatives from browser makers like Apple, Mozilla, and Firefox were involved in the Working Group that advised editor Ian Hickson as he worked on the HTML5 “spec”—the document that governs what is and isn’t valid HTML5. (You don’t want to know too much about the process of creating these specs; I imagine it’s worse than a trip to the sausage factory.) The unfortunate takeaway was this: the big browser developers couldn’t agree on which video format the new tag in HTML5 should use: some sided with H.264, others with a format called Ogg Theora.

As Hickson summarized the situation in an e-mail to the Web-standards body WHATWG, Apple refused to implement Ogg Theora in QuickTime—which Safari uses to decode video—”citing lack of hardware support and an uncertain patent landscape.” Mozilla and Opera both refused to implement H.264, expressing concerns about its licensing requirements. Google implemented both H.264 decoding (which Apple and QuickTime do support) and Ogg Theora in Chrome, but expressed concern about the quality-per-bit of Ogg Theora video.

Without getting too detailed about all these licensing and patent objections, the gist is simply that video standards are often patented, and the use of those standards requires a license. The MPEG LA group, which owns the H.264 video codec, had declared that it wouldn’t charge any royalty fees until 2016, but Mozilla and Opera were worried about what those future costs might be. Should H.264 video become a de facto Web standard in the meantime, the MPEG LA group would be in a position to charge a healthy fee for browser developers to keep using the format.

While Mozilla and others believed that the Ogg Theora format wasn’t encumbered by such patents (and potential licensing fees), Apple and Steve Jobs remained unconvinced. Microsoft later announced that Internet Explorer 9 would support H.264 video, and not Ogg Theora.

Thus, Hickson wrote, “I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that there is no suitable codec that all vendors are willing to implement and ship.”

That unfortunate sequence of events meant that providers of Web video—and, to a certain extent, their consumers—got the short end of the stick. For full HTML5 video support, media providers now must encode their videos in multiple formats to make all browsers and platforms happy—that’s time- and resource-consuming for content producers.

Earlier this year, Google acquired On2, the company that initially developed what later became the Ogg Theora format. Back in May, Google made On2’s new format, called VP8, royalty-free to use. That would be a third possible HTML5 video format. Chrome, Firefox, and Opera offer varying levels of support for the VP8; Microsoft announced tentative plans to do so by the time Internet Explorer 9 ships, but Apple was silent on the subject.

All that background brings us back to Thursday’s announcement by MPEG LA that it will never charge any royalties for Internet video encoded using the H.264 standard, when the video is free to consumers. That December 31, 2015 expiration date for royalty-free use of H.264 is now history, and anyone can decode Internet video encoded in the format freely, in perpetuity.

There’s plenty of reason to rejoice at that, not least because oodles of HTML5 Web video is already using H.264. YouTube uses it in its HTML5 player, and any YouTube video you watch on your iPad or iPhone is encoded in the format. The same is true of Vimeo’s HTML5 player, and CNN’s, and ESPN’s, and Major League Baseball’s, and so on. And, of course, if Thursday’s announcement means that the Web will soon get even more H.264 HTML5 video, that’s more video you can consume with your iPhone and iPad, or other Flash-free mobile devices (which, at present, is many of them).

One hopes that with MPEG LA’s announcement, Mozilla and Opera will now feel comfortable supporting the H.264 codec, and HTML5 Web video can standardize on the format. That would mean that it would become easier and cheaper for publishers to create cross-platform, cross-browser HTML5 video; further reduce the Web’s reliance on proprietary Flash video; and make Flash-free mobile and desktop video-watching easier for browser makers, publishers, and consumers alike. Of course, folks like Ian Hickson would probably suggest that you never make assumptions about how browser makers will act.

But should Mozilla and Opera offer H.264 decoding in future versions of their browsers, the Web will finally have a universally-accepted, royalty-free, high-quality video codec for use everywhere.

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