The search for the next-generation video codec for the open web has reached an impasse. Few of the options are truly open or free, and those that are free are not being pushed by the major forces.
Apple's iPad, like the iPhone, will not support Flash video for technical and commercial reasons. Instead, Apple has pledged support for HTML 5 and the H.264 format.
This move has been praised in many places for apparently showing support for web standards in the shape of HTML 5 and for shunning the proprietary format in the shape of Flash, which is owned by Adobe.
Conversely, the developers of the free software browser Firefox take the position that they cannot — and will not — support the H.264 format because the codec is patent- and royalty-encumbered, which inhibits its use with free and open-source software.
Although H.264 has some technical advantages and has been recognised as an industry standard for implementations of HTML 5, a shift to the format could have a sting in the tail for the open web.
H.264 is not an open standard, but rather an industry-led compromise developed by the ISO/IEC Moving Picture Experts Group (MPEG). In the view of proponents of the open web, a patent-encumbered codec works against the interests of start-ups, web designers, developers and users, and is a barrier to entry for free and open-source software developers, who are putting their faith in Google's willingness to release and support On2's VP8 codec as an open standard.
The last of the US patents on H.264 does not expire until 2028.
Formats that are not knowingly patent-encumbered and are released under open-source licences include Ogg Theora, which is the preferred solution of many free software advocates, and the Dirac format, developed by the BBC Research Department and named after Paul Dirac, the British physicist and Nobel prize winner.
Ogg Theora is supported by Firefox and Opera and plugins exist for other browsers. Theora has been available for years, but has not received the commercial support it might have been expected to attract. Opinions on Theora's effectiveness as a universal codec vary according to their source, but the codec remains indisputably open and — given industry support — is ripe for development as an open standard.
De facto standard
The compromise over recent years has been Flash. It is ubiquitous but proprietary, has performance issues on Linux, OS X and mobiles, and is unusable on touchscreens. Flash has evolved over many years and can be described as a de facto standard, which owes much of its present popularity to being in the right place at the right time.
Meanwhile, Microsoft is using its desktop and browser dominance to push for its own proprietary methodologies and codecs through Silverlight, which it has developed as a competitor to Flash, and is selling hard to online video distributors. Silverlight has some advantages over Flash in that it is a clean development of existing technologies.
For their own reasons, neither Apple nor Microsoft has any great interest in pushing for an unencumbered format, so the situation has gone to a stalemate.
Proponents of the open web argue that patents and trade secrets embedded in codecs and file formats are an impedance to innovation and interoperability, and are an unwanted consequence of the proliferation of business methods and software patents during the past few decades. The value of open standards is that everyone can take part without having to ask anyone's permission.
Integrity and neutrality
Standards are fundamentally about interoperability. By definition, a standard assumes a level of commonality that enables multiple implementations that are totally conversant with one another. The basic requirement of a standard is that it preserves the integrity and neutrality of the data.
The web has worked because the protocols and standards have remained free and open, universal, consistent and simple, and the players, for the most part, have had to play ball and follow the rules.
In the view of Tim Berners-Lee, "the lesson from the proliferation of new applications and services on top of the web infrastructure is that innovation will happen provided it has a platform of open technical standards, a flexible, scalable architecture, and access to these standards on royalty-free terms."
H.264 is owned by MPEG-LA, the company that runs the patent pool shared between companies with patents on the codec. It is in the interest of the patent pool to encourage adoption of the codec, and to this end, MPEG-LA has promised that H.264 will remain royalty-free until 2016.
Beyond 2016, MPEG-LA retains the right to demand royalties for the use or distribution of the codec, and the examples of the delayed imposition of licence payments on GIF and the confusion...