h.264 v. WebM
Well, the next major battle ground has been set in the war for the internet. Oh, sorry, I’m supposed to inject more civility in my discourse. The next big internet debate is the openness of Google’s WebM video codec versus Apple and Microsoft’s closed h.264 codec.
Is it really just that simple?
Of course not. The issue is a quite a bit more complicated than just open versus closed. Even if you leave out a discussion of the quality of the video codecs, the issue is still thorny.
Basically, I think it breaks down like this: The W3C will not endorse a standard that requires any licensing fees like h.264 (regardless if it’s free sometimes, it still requires licensing fees for some users including browser makers). And, the Mozilla foundation and now Google Chrome browser are are refusing to support any video codec that is not licensing free. However, some browser makers (notably Apple and Microsoft) do not want to use a video codec that is wholly controlled by one entity and not an open standard. Google’s WebM may be open source and Google may have guaranteed no licensing fees for the patents involved in WebM; but, it is NOT an open standard. There is no recognized standards body that has accepted WebM as a standard. As such, any browser maker that includes WebM would have depend on Google not changing the WebM specification in a way that breaks their implementation.
So, who’s right?
I think nobody. The best solution would be to have a licensing fee free video codec that is an approved open standard. Short of that happening, it would be nice to see Google propose WebM as an open standard to a standards body and relinquish control over it. And, the h.264 consortium could guarantee no licensing fees for anyone for using the codec. I doubt either of these will happen, unfortunately.
What happens next?
I think, unfortunately this will prompt content producers to use more Flash. If you’re a content producer, you have a choice: re-encode all your video (that you recently converted to h.264 to support the iOS devices) with WebM and keep both h.264 and WebM versions hosted on your servers. Or, wrap the current h.264 version with a Flash wrapper and call it a day. Those browsers that support h.264 will get the h.264 via the html5 video tag and those that don’t will deliver the content via Flash. This situation is not good. Having a standard <video> tag in html5 is really useful. This should allow web developers to easily integrate video into sites. But, when browser makers can’t agree on a codec, this tag loses it’s usefulness.
I’d like to see Google go back to supporting the h.264 codec as well as WebM. I’d also like to see the h.264 consortium give away a free and perpetual license to any browser maker that gives away their browser for free. This way, browser makers can support the codec without having to pay anything. Apple and Microsoft should also support WebM in their browsers as well. Then, let the best codec win. The content producers can then choose which codec to support (which is really where the decision should be made) based on quality of the codec, tool support, licensing fees, etc. And, as an added bonus, less Flash usage!