For a number of reasons, I’m fascinated by the fight over the <video> tag in HTML5 as related by Ryan Paul of Ars Technica – and not just because I like the idea of not having to install a plugin to watch video online.
On the technical side, it’s mind-boggling to think about the possible consequences of some of these decisions. You have Google suggesting that the wrong codec would demand more bandwidth to run YouTube than is available on the entire Internet. That’s a big number. I am sincerely glad I’m not the engineer who has to manage changes at that scale.
More optimistically, you have the prospect of having native support for video in every browser, without paying or contracting with Adobe for the privilege. That’s exciting.
The friendly rivalry between Theora and H.264 is also neat to watch. I think it’s great that the Theora folks are responding to Apple and Google’s quality and performance concerns. It sounds like addressing their objections has made for a better standard.
Now for the ugliness. The patent portion of this fight is completely ridiculous. As I understand it, you have Apple and Google advocating for the compulsory use of a patent-encumbered and decidedly proprietary codec. In other words, they are putting every producer and broadcaster (which includes individuals) of video on the web in a position where they must pay rent to the MPEG LA consortium. The current licensing terms do not require this, but the license is due to be renegotiated in 2010 and we can guess how that will turn out, based on Jan Ozer’s conversation with Allen Harkness, director of licensing for MPEG LA:
“When I spoke with Harkness, he stated that the patent group hadn’t yet decided the license provisions for internet broadcast, or even if there would be a license, though he conceded that it would make little sense for the patent group to forego this revenue. The only thing certain is that the royalty provisions must be announced by January 2010 for royalties that would be payable the following year.” (emphasis mine)
And who among us can watch as these decisions get made by the MPEG LA? Presumably, those who can log in to the MPEG LA Meetings page. I’m not interested in that kind of uncertainty in a basic building block of the average user’s Internet experience. It provides the MPEG LA a de facto monopoly on online video. Worse, this could raise the bar unnecessarily high for an HTML5-compliant open source browser. If our goal is a free and open web, I don’t know why this is even on the table. I sincerely hope I’m misunderstanding the issue, because it seems the consequences of a H.264 <video> tag are dire.
In light of this, Ogg Theora seems like a good alternative as it doesn’t seem to be encumbered by patents. Google and Apple, though, are not so sure. They believe Theora hasn’t been cooking long enough to draw the attention of any submarine patent holders. Theora advocates turn this argument around and suggest that H.264 could also have undiscovered patent encumbrances. I appreciate the logic of what they’re saying, but the fact that H.264 is already so wildly popular for so long seems to guarantee that any patent trolls would have surfaced by now.
In any case, this is a great illustration of just how profoundly broken the patent system is, with respect to software. Instead of encouraging innovation, it is stifling it.