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

Craig Buckler

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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