Sting in the tail for web's video codec search

With the search for a video code for the open web mired in discord, any move towards a proprietary option could have unwelcome consequences
Written by Richard Hillesley, Contributor on

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.

Industry-led compromise
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...

...surrounding MP3 provide salutary reminders that encumbered formats can bring up unpleasant issues.

MP3 was acknowledged as a standard by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) in 1993, but 14 years later, in February 2007, Microsoft was hit by a $1.52bn judgement — £750m at the time — for infringing patents on the codec, which had become the standard format for exchanging music on the web.

The patents had originally belonged to Bell Laboratories, but the breakup of AT&T led to the dispersal of Bell Labs' intellectual property among a variety of corporate entities that staked claims on the relative success of the format, one of which was Alcatel-Lucent, which claimed infringement against Microsoft.

Microsoft appealed against the claim on the grounds that it had already paid $16m to Fraunhofer IIS, which also claimed rights to patents on the technologies. A curious side note on the trial is that James Johnston, who was cited as one of the inventors of the patents owned by Alcatel-Lucent was, was a Microsoft employee at the time of the trial.

Liberal licensing
Christopher Blizzard, open-source evangelist for the Mozilla Foundation, suggests that the lesson of GIF and MP3 is that "if you allow liberal licensing early in a technology's lifespan, network effects create much more value down the road when you can change licences to capture value created by delivering images and data in those formats. Basically wait for everyone to start using it and then make everyone pay".

Some of the older technology companies take a short-term view of the web and have continued to look for commercial advantage in the promotion of technologies that lock the customer into short-term solutions. Google takes an opposite view and recognises that the growth of standards and the long-term health of the web work to its long-term advantage.

The company declares on its official blog that there are "two components to our definition of open: open technology and open information. Open technology includes open source, meaning we release and actively support code that helps grow the internet, and open standards, meaning we adhere to accepted standards and, if none exist, work to create standards that improve the entire internet, and not just benefit Google".

Ensuring diversity
One example of Google's beneficence in the promotion of the web is its sponsorship of Firefox and the Mozilla Foundation. Ostensibly, Google pays Mozilla for placement in its search engine box, but investing in the success of Firefox helps to ensure diversity among web browsers. Diversity helps to foster adherence to open standards, and open standards help to guarantee Google's business model.

The success of Firefox, Opera and Google Chrome helps to ensure that Internet Explorer stays honest and goes some way to conformance with web standards.

Google also owns YouTube and has a vested interest in retaining open standards for video codecs, so it is significant that Google has chosen to buy On2 Technologies, which is devoted to the creation of high-quality video codecs. Google has made a considerable investment in the purchase of On2, but has an even greater interest in the perpetuation of the open web.

Range of applications
On2 says its VP8 codec outperforms H.264 and is appropriate for a wide range of applications from broadcast of satellite and cable TV, to mobile phones and video conferencing.

Given Google's history and commitment to open standards it seems unlikely that it will pass the opportunity to open the codec as an unencumbered universal format under an irrevocable royalty-free licence that would open new markets for Google and new opportunities for video on the web. That is the hope of free software developers, and is re-enforced by Google's own promise:

"If there are existing standards for handling user data, then we should adhere to them. If a standard doesn't exist, we should work to create an open one that benefits the entire web, even if a closed standard appears to be better for us... In the meantime we need to do whatever we can to make leaving Google as easy as possible. Google is not the Hotel California — you can check out any time you like and you can, in fact, leave."

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