H.264 Is Royalty-Free: Will it Become the HTML5 Video Standard?

Contributing Editor

MPEG LA, the group that licenses the H.264/AVC codec, has announced that web streaming of video files encoded using the format is free. The group had previously stated it would remain royalty-free until 2016, but that deadline has been lifted. MPEG LA have not given specific reasons for the change, but the arrival of free codecs such as WebM would have influenced their decision.

The big question: how will this affect HTML5 video?

Although the HTML5 specification includes a <video> tag for native browser playback, it doesn’t specify a codec…

  • Google, Mozilla and Opera support Ogg Theora, Ogg Vorbis and are introducing WebM in new builds. They had refused to support H.264 because the patent could have imposed licensing fees for the vendor or users.
  • Apple’s Safari browser uses any codec supported by Quicktime, but H.264 is the most common format. Their mobile devices include H.264 hardware decoding to ensure video playback remains smooth. Apple is the only vendor yet to embrace WebM — it should work on a Mac with the codec installed, but it won’t work on their mobile devices.
  • Microsoft IE9 supports H.264 and any codec installed on the user’s PC. That includes WebM, but it won’t be distributed with Windows or the browser.

The codec chaos affects web developers wanting to adopt native video. To ensure cross-browser video playback, you must encode clips in three formats: Ogg Theora/Vorbis (or eventually WebM), MP4 H.264 and Flash video for older browsers.

Until now, I expected WebM to become the ‘standard’ HTML5 video codec. Apple would have stood alone as the only vendor without support for the format, but iPhone and iPad users don’t have Flash — they are already used to a video-less web.

But could the MPEG LA announcement flip the industry on it’s head? Are Mozilla and Opera free to add H.264 support? Google may be backing WebM but there are few reasons to prevent them adding H.264 to Chrome. Would H.264 finally become the single most reliable HTML5 video format?

Perhaps I’m being cynical, but I doubt it. H.264 only remains free at the point of delivery — when you’re viewing a video. The initial encoding, server technology, and browser decoding software incur a royalty payment to MPEG LA. Even if a vendor pays for the decoder, H.264 could not be implemented directly within an open source product because the source must be freely available to anyone. Licensing issues arise for Mozilla Firefox, Google Chromium and Linux distributions.

By contrast, manufacturers can add WebM to video encoding software, server solutions, operating systems and browsers without restrictions or royalty payments. Assuming it’s easy to install the codec on Windows, a significant proportion of web users should be able to view WebM videos by this time next year.

Web developers don’t want to waste time, money and bandwidth supporting multiple video formats. While I welcome the H.264 announcement, the license probably remains too restrictive for the open web. WebM has potential, but support will remain patchy for many months. If you only want to encode your video once, there’s only one technology which currently offers reliable video playback in most browsers — Flash.

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  • http://www.broken-links.com/ stopsatgreen

    “Apple would have stood alone as the only vendor without support for the format” – not the case, as I wrote today: http://www.broken-links.com/2010/09/01/playing-webm-in-safari-with-plugins/

    • http://www.optimalworks.net/ Craig Buckler

      Thanks. I’ve updated the post to clarify Apple’s position.

      However, iPhones, iPods and iPads are a huge segment of Apple’s market. Also, do you know whether a WebM codec exists for Mac OS? And how many Mac users would install it anyway?

      However you look at it, Apple has invested heavily in H.264 and aren’t keen to support another format — even if everyone else is.

  • http://www.broken-links.com/ stopsatgreen

    Sure, not disputing the basic thrust of your post at all.

    As for the WebM codec for Mac, as I mentioned in my post I believe it’s in a development version of Perian so could be released quite soon. If Google were to promote it on YouTube…

  • http://www.optimalworks.net/ Craig Buckler

    Do 53% of SitePoint users really think H.264 will become the standard for the HTML5 video tag? I’m amazed. In many ways, it’d be great. But I’d be amazed if it happens.

  • http://keryx.se itpastorn

    H.264 can never become a standard for web video as long as the patents are not released according to W3C patent policies.

    Yes, the W3C mandates that all standardized web technologies should be free for all and for all types of usage and that as far as they are affected by patents, the owners of those patents legally commit to not stopping such usage.

    The MPEG-LA consortium so far has showed no interest whatsoever to release their patents in a W3C compatible way. Thus the question is answered, H.264 is not even a candidate for becoming a web standard.

    • http://www.optimalworks.net/ Craig Buckler

      There’s no question that H.264, as it stands, can’t become an official W3C recommendation or a web standard.

      However, H.264 could become the ‘standard’ format — the one everyone uses to encode videos. In other words, H.264 is to video as Flash is to games.

      • http://keryx.se itpastorn

        And in what way is that a good thing? It’s still proprietary and not free. I’ve now written about this in length at http://itpastorn.blogspot.com/2010/09/why-h264-is-disqualified-from-being-web.html

      • http://www.optimalworks.net/ Craig Buckler

        It’s not. I agree with your points. After all, MPEG LA could renege on the deal and start charging at some point in the future. That could incur fines and legal complications for them, but a good lawyer and a few loopholes would fix that.

        But let’s assume WebM becomes a W3C standard and is available everywhere — except on Apple devices. Assume also that H.264 becomes implemented everywhere including Apple devices. We’d all have a choice, but I suspect the majority would choose H.264 — it’s the easier option.

        That’s unfortunate, but we had a similar situation with GIF vs PNG. Even with decent browser support, it took many years before the better and open PNG format overtook GIF usage.

  • Silvia Pfeiffer

    Some more small corrections:

    * Google Chrome supports the MP4 H.264/AAC format.
    * Flash also supports MP4 H.264/AAC, and as such there is no need to transcode from MP4 use in Flash to MP4 use in – it is unfortunately a big advantage that MP4 currently has for video hosting sites and for Web browsers on Desktop. For mobile use, you will still have to transcode to a different profile of MP4 H.264/AAC.
    * Most importantly: the MPEG LA has announced that the use of H.264 online is only free for freely viewable video – commercial use of video online still requires payment of royalties. So, indeed, there is not much of a change in strategy by MPEG LA and it doesn’t change the situation for HTML5.