A few hundred words from Google Product Manager Mike Jazayeri announcing that Google would be supporting WebM and Ogg Theroa instead of the H.264 video codec in Google Chrome for the HTML5 video tag has lead to enormous controversy in browser and video circles. Now, Google has explained in more detail what's its trying to do, and ends up defining the sides in the HTML5 video fight.
In his latest post, Jazayeri said that the prior "announcement was solely related to the HTML "Video" tag, which is part of the emerging set of standards commonly referred to as "HTML5." We believe there is great promise in the tag and want to see it succeed. As it stands, the organizations involved in defining the HTML video standard are at an impasse. There is no agreement on which video codec should be the baseline standard. Firefox and Opera support the open WebM and Ogg Theora codecs and will not support H.264 due to its licensing requirements; Safari and IE9 support H.264. With this status quo, all publishers and developers using the tag will be forced to support multiple formats."
This last point has been ignored by some critics who say that "H.264 is what we need." While Jazayeri acknowledges "that H.264 has broader support in the publisher, developer, and hardware community today (though support across the ecosystem for WebM is growing rapidly). However, as stated above, there will not be agreement to make it the baseline in the HTML video standard due to its licensing requirements."
Jazayeri continues, "To use and distribute H.264, browser and OS vendors, hardware manufacturers, and publishers who charge for content must pay significant royalties-with no guarantee the fees won't increase in the future. To companies like Google, the license fees may not be material, but to the next great video startup and those in emerging markets these fees stifle innovation."
The patent pool company that controls H.264's patents, MPEG Licensing Authority's (MPEG LA), members include Apple and Microsoft. The company, which has been sued by the German software company Nero on anti-trust grounds is accused by Nero of using its patent power "to willfully maintain or extend its monopolies for years beyond their natural expiration ... and administer its licenses in an unfair, unreasonable, and discriminatory manner that stifles competition and innovation, and harms consumers."
Garrard Beeney, a Sullivan & Cromwell attorney representing MPEG LA, replied to this claim that "I think we're looking it as a typical response by a company that has not abided by the terms of the license they've taken."
H.264 Distrust: Beyond the Lawsuit
Regardless of who's right or wrong in this case or how it will turn out in court, the Nero litigation is an example of the distrust that many companies and open-source organizations have towards MPEG LA and how it manages its patents and their licenses.
In addition, while MPEG LA has announced that it will not collect royalties for Internet video, specifically Internet Broadcast AVC Video, that is free to end users until at least 1 January, 2016. But MEPL LA can, and does, charge licensing fees for software and hardware H.264 encoders, decoders, and streaming of paid video content.
That may seem a long way away, but at least one patent in the MPEG LA pool will not expire until 2028, and more patents are being added to the pool (PowerPoint Link). For companies, who are not members of the MPEG LA group, fees can currently range up to $6.5 million a year with 25% at each renewal for similar license grants (PDF Link). As members of this pool, Apple and Microsoft, which support H.264, don't have to pay these fees.
Jazayeri explains though that Google is taking its stance not just because of "the license fees; an even more important consideration is the pace of innovation and what incentives drive development. No community development process is perfect, but it's generally the case that the community-driven development of the core web platform components is done with user experience, security and performance in mind. When technology decisions are clouded by conflicting incentives to collect patent royalties, the priorities and outcome are less clear and the process tends to take a lot longer. This is not good for the long term health of Web video."
Google's decision to support open standard video formats also doesn't mean that it will be blocking H.264. Jazayeri said, "H.264 plays an important role in video and the vast majority of the H.264 videos on the web today are viewed in plug-ins such as Flash and Silverlight. These plug-ins are and will continue to be supported in Chrome. Our announcement was only related to the tag, which is part of the emerging HTML platform."
Nor, is Google trying to force its own WebM format down the throat of developers or users. Jazayeri continued, "Google views its role like any other community member and has no desire or intent to control the WebM format. Our goal is to see the HTML tag become a first-class video platform. As with many other web platform efforts, we expect the majority of organizations and individuals contributing to WebM won't be affiliated with Google or any single entity."
The Google manager acknowledges though that publishers may need to create multiple copies of their videos. But, there's nothing new about that. "Remember, Firefox and Opera have never supported H.264 due to its licensing requirements, they both support WebM and Ogg Theora. Therefore, unless publishers and developers using the HTML tag don't plan to support the large portion of the desktop and mobile web that use these browsers, they will have to support a format other than H.264 anyway (which is why we are working to establish a baseline codec for HTML video)."
What if Microsoft and Apple don't support WebM in their Web browsers, Internet Explorer and Safari? Jazayeri added a postscript to his blog saying that "Safari and IE9 plug-ins to be released by the WebM Project Team enable WebM playback via the HTML standard tag."
So, the battle over video standards seems destined to continue. On one side, there will be Google with Chrome, Mozilla's Firefox, and Opera Software's Opera. On the other, there will be Microsoft with Internet Explorer and Apple with Safari supporting H.264.
Don't expect the W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) to sort the tag problem out. Philippe Le Hégaret, the W3C's Interaction Domain Leader and thus the lead on HTML5, tells me that no video format has been chosen for the HTML5's video tag. I strongly support the goal of a single Royalty-Free (RF) code for HTML5. I don't yet know how we'll get there, whether H.264 patent holders choose to license it, or WebM is standardized under RF terms, or some other scenario. Participants in W3C's HTML Working Group have all made RF commitments for that specification. W3C invites those with IPR [intellectual property rights] claims around video codecs to follow-suit, and to build broad industry support at W3C for a single RF codec for the Web."
There seems to be little chance of that though. While Google seems to intend to make WebM royalty-free, the MPEG LA has shown no interest in making H.264 RF. Even if both did become RF, getting the two sides to agree on a single Web video standard codec seems about as distance a possibility as it was when video started appearing on the Web. The Web video fights are certain to continue on for years to come.