Codecs War is On – HTML5 Video Issue!

The Apple of Discord - Codec for the New HTML5 <video> tag
Do you remember those good old times when we haven't heard anything about the “Flash killers” and playing the web video with Flash player was the option and everyone was pretty much happy with that option? Yep, those days are long gone and things are totally different today - although it is hard to tell whether it's good or bad.

HTML5 strikes the web industry with new standards and unusual solutions that will someday get a status of "revolutionary". The latest version of hyper text markup language raises its hand against many standards and of course one of the most controversial things about HTML5 is the <video> tag debates. The problem is that the folks from W3C group haven't decided yet on what exact codec will be used for the new HTML5 <video> tag. And therefore what we have today are the two possible candidates to do this big job - Ogg Theora and H.264 codecs.

The Candidates

In the red corner of the ring is the Ogg Theora - the open source video codec project from which in turn is being funded by Mozilla Foundation. It is not bounded by some patents and fees so it is very convenient for the users and strongly recommended by the open source software community. Non-profit status of this software is a great thing but we can't say that this codec can give you high performance video. It means that main trump of this codec is the free distributing but the quality of the video provided by Ogg Theora codec will surely make W3C think twice about it.

In the blue corner is the H.264 codec brought by the ISO Moving Picture Experts Group (aka MPEG). This codec's mission is to deliver the high quality video with the assumption of low bitrate. An additional goal is to allow the standard to be applied to a wide variety of applications in various networks and systems. So far sounds awesome, doesn't it? Well take this, W3C: the main problem is that if you want to use this software you will have to pay the licensing fees to MPEG LA.

Another Battle of the Browsers War?

Safari uses QuickTime framework and you can play anything you want if you have proper QuickTime codec. It seems to be an original and efficient solution but unfortunately it can't fix the problem globally because this method cannot be used for other browsers. Firefox and Opera are the famous supporters of the open source stuff and it is obviously that these guys will want to support the Ogg Theora codec. According to the recent statements from Microsoft officials, the Internet Explorer 9 will support the H.264 codec as the part of basic HTML5 support from this browser. Google Chrome is using ffmpeg library that supports both Ogg Theora and H.264. Ok, looks like that Chrome has solved the problem but it is not as simple as it seems. Even though ffmpeg is an open source project it still requires paying fees and this is a problem for the rest of the browser providers.

So what do we have as a result of this browser thing? In our opinion Google Chrome will be able to dramatically increase its market share given the opportunities it currently has. And Google will obviously neither want to do anything to help other browsers solve what appears to be their codec problem nor to support the Ogg Theora codec - because all of the YouTube videos are encoded into H.264 codec (and YouTube is in turn owned by Google as we all know it). So in terms of HTML5 Google Chrome so far appears the obvious winner.

Waiting for the Messiah

So, what do we have for today? Web community is waiting for the long-anticipated solution that will be suitable both for the monster market players and for the web users. Indeed, easier said than done...

There are also several possible ways of solving this problem.

  1. Making the H.264 codec an open source project - everybody will be happy, except for maybe the owners of this codec. Google can't accept the Ogg Theora because YouTube stores most of its content encoded into H.264 codec so it is unprofitable for Google to make this step. Of course the chances that h.264 will get free patent are minimal but we can hope for that.
  2. Creating a unified solution that will be built into all major operating systems and will allow encoding any video with one codec that will be supported by all browsers. That's not a bad idea but it does require a lot of time and a lot of money. There's this codec called VP-8, it has a chance to become a new "video" Messiah because Google has made an acquisition offer to the shareholders of the On2 company which owns patent for VP-8 video codec. So if this software will be released under the free patent we can hope that it will beat the expensive H.264. But again - will Google want to make other browsers' lives this easy?
  3. Such monsters as Adobe or Apple may step in with something that will also look like the ultimate solution. The resources of these giants do allow them to still be able to jump on the ultimate codec bandwagon. Not sure if Apple will indeed want that but they are very much likely to because they're not really used to hanging around and watching things passing them by, Steve Jobs wouldn't lose this sort of marketing opportunity.As for Adobe - they're not likely to want to lose their current leading positions in terms of web video, and we as an audience in turn would treat what they will possibly provide with great respect and trust, because come on - that's freaking Adobe after all!
  4. Basically anything else may happen. What we mean here is that the Internet does very much simplify the process of inventing and integrating brilliant things within just a couple of months. Plus, the folks at W3C are smart enough to see whether some startup may be a Web video Messiah and will surely hold on to it in case they see it. So the doors are open for the innovative solutions, and to be honest we would like to see something more interesting than the options we've seen so far.

Anyways it is hard to predict how this problem will be solved. May the power be with us and let's just hope that the solution - whatever it would be - will indeed be the best option and will actually make a better place for us all.

And we are sure that many of you have your own visions and opinions about how this whole video thing will work out. Please let us know in the comments - we'd love to know what you think.

Edward Korcheg

Edward is a professional technical writer who is also passionate about making stunning designs in Photoshop. You can find many useful tutorials in his collection of articles at MonsterMost.

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