A few key questions about HTML5 video

Even though IE9 supports Google's WebM HTML5 video codec 'natively (for values of 'native' meaning it works and all you have to do is install the codec) alongside H.264, the HTML5 video situation continues to be murky.

Even though IE9 supports Google's WebM HTML5 video codec 'natively (for values of 'native' meaning it works and all you have to do is install the codec) alongside H.264, the HTML5 video situation continues to be murky.

Dean Hachamovitch, the corporate VP in charge of IE, brought up Microsoft's questions about WebM back in February and it's fair to say that the questions of indemnifying businesses and developers if WebM turns out to infringe on patents, and of when the open standards community gets to get their teeth into WebM, haven't been answered. The third question in that post, around restoring consistency got a workout at the Web 2.0 conference recently, with views ranging from realistic to naïve.

Yahoo architecture Douglas Crockford raised the question of DRM (confusingly, since which neither WebM nor H.264 support that in the Video tag; that's one reason even YouTube hasn't abandoned Flash). "I want open and free and I hope it wins. Content holders who are not happy with that are trying to change the laws of maths. Ultimately I hope that fails. Ultimately I think DRM loses but not quickly enough."

Alex Russell from the Chrome team pointed out that codecs and DRM are separate issues , but he also said "We are pushing WebM because we want the eventual place we all end up at to be a free and open codec and that seems like a baseline everyone should be able to get behind," which is rather like asking for world peace for Christmas - simply wishing the various questions out of the way in the interests of philosophy.

IE group program manager Rob Mauceri re-iterated the uncertainty problem when asked why Microsoft wasn't shipping the WebM codec. "It's not clear what the promise is around the legal implications there are around WebM. There's quite an exhaustive blog post about our concerns that have gone unanswered. I'm not a lawyer, I'm an engineer - but that’s why we’re not." And he played the pragmatism card. "What matters with HTML5 video is that it actually works. We support H.264 in IE9 because it's widely available in Windows, it works well, it's battery efficient and it's accelerated in hardware." The IE team worked with Google to make sure WebM works well in IE9 too, but despite the promise of hardware support last spring there's still no hardware acceleration for the WebM codec whereas almost every PC have hardware support for decoding H.264, which means it plays more smoothly and should use less memory. A lot of smartphones have hardware H.264 acceleration and that's even more important - you don't have the hardware power to do a good job of software video decoding on a phone or tablet.

"Those hardware designs for WebM are coming," Google's Russell said, but didn't give a date. I’d call that the fourth big question about WebM myself and it's closely related to another pragmatic point. Your smartphone and your digital camera and your pocket video camera all record video in H.264 - the hardware manufacturers are paying the fee to the MPEG LA organisation to cover the encoding, which means you can share videos online and sites can stream them without worrying about royalties (you only need to have one party in the chain paying for a licence).

But that doesn't answer all the questions. Unlike Google's Russell, (who maintains "very few publishers are big enough to run into this question of how do I make money") Tantek Çelik (who has worked with both Microsoft and Mozilla on browsers) points out that there could be grey areas with the H.264 free streaming promise. "If you want to publish on the Web and you are not doing it for any profit, you have a waiver - it was till 2016 and it was extended indefinitely - if you are not going to make any money off your videos. Whatever the definition is of that. Publishing video is expensive, it takes up bandwidth and there is usually some sort of business model involved where people are trying to recoup some costs. I'm not sure if that falls into the commercial area or not - and I don’t want some consortium to be the judge of that."

We're expecting news about the future of IE this week at the MIX conference. One of the things Microsoft has to do is convince the Web industry that IE9 isn't a one -off catchup to what's state of the art in stable standards (because today's unstable, unready standards proposals could by state of the art in stable standards in a year's time, with more new, unready but exciting ideas coming up behind them). IE10 is going to have to keep pace with an HTML5 that's still in flux and we're hoping to hear Microsoft explain how that's going to happen. But it wouldn't hurt to have some clarity from either MPEG LA or Microsoft giving a nice clear explanation of what that waiver amounts to if I'm putting ads on the page my free videos stream from… Because what we need most for HTML5 video is more clear answers. Mary Branscombe

Editorial standards