By Louis Simoneau

The Dark Side of HTML 5 Video

By Louis Simoneau

Last week, YouTube announced beta HTML 5 video support: once you’ve activated the beta, you’ll see videos using a native browser element rather than the Flash plugin. The new player only works with a recent version of either Safari or Chrome (or Chrome Frame in IE), as the video is encoded with the H.264 codec, which isn’t supported in Firefox. A day after YouTube’s announcement, Vimeo made a similar one. They also now provide preliminary support for the HTML video element with a new HTML player.

Superficially this seems like a victory for the “open” Web, right? A few major sites, representing a significant percentage of online video, begin to move away from a proprietary technology (Flash) and towards an open standard (HTML 5). But when you look a little deeper it turns out to not be so simple. Both YouTube and Vimeo have chosen to provide their HTML video encoded with the H.264 codec, which is patent-encumbered. Apple has a big stake in H.264, so Safari supports it, and Google has paid a licensing fee to include an H.264 decoder in Chrome.

Mozilla Firefox, on the other hand, doesn’t support H.264: it will only play HTML video encoded with the Ogg Theora codec. This is partly for ideological reasons, as the Theora codec is open source and therefore inline with Mozilla’s principles. But there’s more to it than just ideology. In reply to YouTube’s announcement, Mozilla’s VP of Engineering, Mike Shaver, published a blog post explaining why Mozilla is sticking to its guns with Theora. He points to H.264’s licensing fees not only as a justification for Mozilla’s decision not to support the format, but also as a more dire threat: “[…] if H.264 becomes an accepted part of the standardized web, those fees are a barrier to entry for developers of new browsers, those bringing the web to new devices or platforms, and those who would build tools to help content and application development.” Mozilla’s Open Source Evangelist, Christopher Blizzard, also had a lot to say on the topic, likening the situation to what happened years ago with the GIF format (and, to a lesser extent, with MP3).

It’s important to remember that the current level of browser support for web standards comes, in large part, from Firefox’s ability to compete on a level playing field with other browsers, and from the Mozilla team’s dedication to open standards. When big sites like YouTube begin positioning a proprietary format as the de facto standard for HTML video, they significantly impede the ability of free-as-in-speech browsers like Firefox to rival their competitors in functionality, which hurts interoperability and innovation on the Web as a whole. Meanwhile, though Chrome and Safari may be excellent browsers, and while their support for modern standards-based HTML and CSS should be applauded, in this respect their choice of a proprietary video format is more reminiscent of IE, circa the mid-90’s. SynBay

The fact that YouTube and Vimeo are trumpeting their new HTML 5 video support as an open standards victory is misleading to say the least. And it does lead to confusion: as pointed out by Christopher Blizzard, more than a few people on Twitter seem to think that Firefox’s lack of support for YouTube’s HTML 5 video should be taken to mean that Firefox doesn’t support HTML 5!

YouTube stated that it was launching the new feature in response to a user survey in which “Support HTML5 open web video with open formats” was the most requested feature. It seems that YouTube might only have been paying attention to the first half of the sentence: HTML 5 video, yes; open formats, eh, not so much.

So what do you think? Is it the job of YouTube and other sites like it to lead the way in providing video in an open format? Or should Chrome and Safari lead the way by supporting those formats first? Or are Mozilla being hopeless idealists?

  • highrockmedia

    A dark side indeed, I just don’t understand this, it took years to get everyone on the same page with being able to view Flash video, why on earth introduce another “standard” now that might add confusion into the mix? I’m glad Mozilla is sticking to what it believes in. This also has me wondering, there has been such a huge push with HTML 5 in general, is HTML 5 video just another ‘format du jour’ that will come and go?

  • Kostas K.

    I would go with the last: “hopeless idealists”.
    The open source community’s work on video never actually took off (MKV’s popularity comes from pirates copies of movies and TV shows and Ogg Theora never got any acceptance beyond the Linux space).
    Most portable device manufacturers feel comfortable to include support of trusted technologies like MPEG4 into their devices. Also, the web is getting more and more accessed by devices other than PCs. Thus it only makes sense for content websites to pick the technology that has a roadmap and can follow it instead of investing (money and developers) in an open technology that may or may not get dropped halfway through some poor device’s lifecycle.

  • That’s quite a misleading title.

  • Daniele Dellafiore

    I think that, one way or onother, it should start. Of course is not the better way possible, but is better than the perspective of a flash exclusive audio/video for another decade.
    Blind people could ignore Open Source ten years ago, but today Firefox has 30% usage, and growing, in cannot be ignored.

    Is important that people that understand the risk of a almost closed video for the web keep to stay alert, and actively support open ways. just to ask, what is going to do Hulu? Next, start to ask youttube and vimeo when (not if) they will support HTML5 open video standards…

  • Anonymous

    When big sites like YouTube begin positioning a proprietary format as the de facto standard for HTML video, they significantly impede the ability of free-as-in-speech browsers like Firefox to rival their competitors in functionality, which hurts interoperability and innovation on the Web as a whole.

    Big sites like YouTube have been positioning a proprietary format for HTML video from day–1: Adobe’s Flash.

    Present day IE still behaves like IE of the 90’s when it comes to HTML5 and <video>.

    If IE were here, I’d punch it in the face.

  • @highrockmedia

    is HTML 5 video just another ‘format du jour’ that will come and go?

    There is no HTML5 video format. HTML5 provides the means to display video (like the img tag for images) but browser vendors decide on the actual video format/codec (like image formats). This is why the title is misleading, it implies fault lies with HTML5 when this couldn’t be further from the truth.

    IIRC there were issues in the early days when browsers started to implement images, they’ll get through these issues with video too and once we do it’ll hopefully be worth it.

  • EastCoast

    While open source zealots cringe at the potential patent costs of h.264 (which IMO is over-reaction – it never stopped mp3 becoming the defacto audio for web standard) they usually avoid pointing to the hidden costs to using Ogg Theora.

    The main one is increased storage and bandwidth costs – the fact is it doesn’t compress anywhere nearly as efficiently as h.264, so using it means a retrograde step back in quality while retaining the same infrastructure/hosting costs, or upgrading these to offer the same viewing quality. Another cost is the loss of traffic from using what is to the majority of the public, an unheard of and inaccessible format (Joe Public will neither have a desktop media player or mobile that will play it, compared to h.264 which coexists both on the desktop, in many browsers, on mobile devices and integrates with flash based playback)

    The concept that there is risk in using proprietary technology for video is an idealogical conjecture, in reality video has flourished on the web during an era when a closed source implementation (flash) has allowed a low cost, feature rich and universal cross OS/browser user experience, where before there was a confusing and highly fragmented range of technologies required to provide the same coverage. Youtube wouldn’t have became a multi billion dollar success without the unified user experience allowed for by a proprietary technology.

    If idealogy triumphs over pragmatism, yes, we could return to a ‘dark age’ of having to supply multiple formats per clip, though I’m not convinced users will thank us for the confusion. Google could of course solve this argument once and for all if it open sourced some of On2’s more recent codecs which are in the same league of performance as h.264

  • wwb_99

    I’d suspect this might have something to do with the fact that YouTube was already streaming H.264 to flash players and changing up the front-end HTML is quite a bit easier than changing over your media serving infrastructure.

  • dougoftheabaci

    Let’s cut the dramatics and walk away from how this effects browsers. Yes it’s important that browsers can support the new tech but if they can’t keep up it’s not like Chrome or Safari is going to die. In fact, as it stands Chrome and Safari support more of future standards than Firefox so let’s just move on shall we? Maybe we should think about how this effects content authors and users.

    Well, from that perspective this is a great move. Many hand-held video cameras already record H.264 video so there’s no post that needs to be done. Pretty much every major video app on the planet exports to H.264 video meaning you don’t have to invest in new apps just to author to a new standard.

    What about users? Well, most computers already support H.264 even without it being built in to the browser. This means that if someone doesn’t have support for the H.264 codec in their browser you could (1) fall back to a video plugin or (2) provide them with a download of the video.

    So, basically, the only people who might conceivably be suffering in this deal are browser manufacturers… Acceptable.

  • Jason

    Apple – just open up h264, and, problem solved. Then everyone can use the h264 codec that many are used too.

  • Lest we forget, Flash video is the technology that turned web-based video from a nightmare of plugin-negotiation across multiple half-broken implementations, to something easy and straightforward to use at reasonable quality.

    I’d advocate open standards wherever possible, but only if they work!

  • Jason Tokoph

    A simple solution would be to give browsers a free decoding license and charge for the encoding license.

  • The main one is increased storage and bandwidth costs – the fact is it doesn’t compress anywhere nearly as efficiently as h.264, so using it means a retrograde step back in quality while retaining the same infrastructure/hosting costs, or upgrading these to offer the same viewing quality.

    YouTube / Ogg/Theora comparison

  • I think both YouTube and Vimeo were using H.264 video extensively for all videos uploaded in the last months or even the last two years. When you upload a video, they convert it both to FLV (On2 VP6 or Sorenson Spark codec, not sure) and to F4V (H.264). The FLV one is for standard definition, and the F4V is what you get when you ask for HD. You can only get HD (and thus H.264) if you have the right front-end tools: Flash 9 update 3+, Flash 10, and now browsers with native support for HTML5 video tag and H.264 codec.

    So, as @wwb_99, i suspect this is just a relatively small change in front-end code, with no or little infrastructure cost. Encoding everything in Ogg Theora can be done, and Dailymotion has been doing it for months. But it probably has an important cost. We’ll see how those different betas (HTML5 video for Safari+Chrome on YouTube and Vimeo, Ogg Theora for Dailymotion) fare with the early adopter and general public.

    My hopes for video on the web:

    – That Apple and Google implement Ogg Theora native support in their browsers. The format is already quite good and is getting better, thanks in part to the financial support of Mozilla (who gave a grant to the Wikimedia Foundation to fund work on Theora). The one hurdle is the fear of patent litigations as patent trolls could have some IP covering features of Theora (though no such patent is known today). Hopefully the big guys (Google and Apple and, well, Microsoft) will grow some balls.
    – That it becomes possible to get H.264 support in Firefox. Maybe an extension (NOT a plugin) could provide that? There are open-source implementations of H.264-compatible codecs, if i remember correctly.
    – That Google releases a new codec for the Web, which would have good performance, would be open-source and (in the US) patent-protected but with W3C-style license promise. Google made a big acquisition last year, buying On2 Technologies. They have not stated what they’re planning but this move is at least partly related to YouTube, and maybe to Chrome.

  • mech7

    Didn’t google buy some company which had a h.264 codec?

  • tom_dot

    I’d agree with wwb_99, it’s probably the native format that Youtube already has all it’s videos in.

    That said, this is a rather worrying development… similar to the way that Ubuntu can’t include a lot of formats out of the box, or that free software has trouble including GIF/JPEG due to licensing restrictions.

    Flash may well be a proprietary system, but it’s free for everyone to include flash decoders in their browsers. H.264 pretty much always requires payment, so it’s going to limit a lot of implementations.
    While many sites use h.24, flash has at least acted as a standard, free front end for those videos (and other formats). If we move to accessing the video/audio formats directly then it’s a whole different ball-game.

  • So, basically, the only people who might conceivably be suffering in this deal are browser manufacturers… Acceptable.

    Also, of course, everyone who uses Firefox or IE, which are most users. I have no intention of moving from Firefox just to accommodate a few websites.

    I’d rather stick with Flash, which the vast majority of users can view. This does not seem like moving forward.

  • lauriek

    I completely agree Jason, but I suspect Apple being an evil company will absolutely fail to do so.

    Apple could in one stroke undo a lot of the bad publicity they’ve had in the last couple of years but they won’t because it is _all_ about the bottom line to them. They couldn’t give a flying toss about what’s good for users or the internet/planet as a whole. The really silly thing is I suspect it would make about -0.01% of a difference to their accounts.

  • Steve

    I’m tempted to ask why YouTube didn’t just support the video tag with flash

  • jsd

    Apple can’t “open up” H.264 – it has nothing to do with them! There are already open source H.264 encoders and decoders (check the ffmpeg and libx264 projects), but Mozilla can’t use them because H.264 is *patent encumbered* and subject to licensing conditions from the MPEG-LA.

    That said, I think they are being hopeless idealists. YouTube is the single biggest driver of video technology on the web, and if you can’t play ball with them, you might as well give up and go home. H.264 is not going anywhere – it’s in your browser, your desktop, your mobile phone, your TV settop box. If anything, it’s just going to take over more. Ogg is a nice idea but there is no way in hell it will ever be anything more than a niche player.

    I’m a diehard Firefox fan but they have to figure out a solution that gives end users H.264 video support without complex hacks/workarounds, or they will become a footnote in web history.

  • EastCoast

    Tyssen – the comparison you have linked to isn’t accurate, comparing encodes from an uploaded and already lossy compressed clip against the Theora clips which start from an uncompressed perfect source is biased, and in one of the comparisons it compares against h263 which is many generations in efficiency away from the topic in hand (h.264).

    The majority of comparative studies of theora v h.264 support my own personal experience using theora (that it takes at least 1.5x the bandwidth to get the same quality as h.264) e.g

  • This should be a critique of the HTML5 spec., not the browsers.

    Unless I’m mistaken (which is entirely possible), doesn’t the HTML5 spec. allow for the introduction of other codex into videos added via the HTML5 video tag? If so, then I think you should reword your article as it sounds like an attack on Google and Apple here which would be out of place IMO, since if I am correct, the issue lies with the HTML5 spec. It seems unreasonable to me to expect a corporate to use a lower grade, lower quality specfication for the video files they serve, which will in turn cost them more money, and isn’t any less “correct” according to the organisational body which recommends how they should develop their software.

  • markfiend

    It’s not hopeless idealism from Mozilla, it’s that they legally cannot include H.264 support while Firefox remains free software under the GPL.

    Mozilla might buy a license for H.264 support in FF, but the license won’t extend to “derivative works” the way the GPL does. So no GNU/Linux distro would be able to include FF without a H.264 license, if you built your own version of FF from source you would need a license, etc. etc.

    This is all explained in Shaver’s blog post as linked in the article. People might take the trouble to read and understand the reasons behind a decision before criticising it.

    The last thing the web-world needs is more patent-encumbered file formats. Does no-one remember the ridiculous situation with the GIF patents? We need open formats — and for video, that’s Ogg Theora.

  • mather

    When large video streaming sites weigh up their potential audience, will they really choose to ignore 30% of it? Unlikely.

  • whyulil

    Id like to point out its just a first release of a beta. Also, Im assuming loads of people have already mentioned this too, they already have video in low quality and high quality to use with flash, changing over to another video format with another high quality low qualiity option would obviously increase storage costs and its not asif we’re only talking about 1 or 2 files… and ultimatly its going to be something that currently a small minority of people use or even notice. Video on the web is still a new thing, in 20 years time im sure it will be all open formats, but as an interim measure i guess we’ll just have to put up with what works in most cases.

    after all css has only just become consitant after 12(?) years.

  • Louis Simoneau

    @ryanheller: The issue of whether a codec should have been specified in the HTML 5 specification is an entirely different one. I think that, given potential future improvements and changes in codecs, it makes sense to leave it open, as was done with the img element.

  • Louis Simoneau

    @markfiend: exactly.

  • Pacoup

    I think that these worries will be short-lived as Google unveils a lot of its strategies that have to do with Chrome OS in 2010.
    First off, they bought On2 a while ago and they’re bound to do something with that. Secondly, knowing Google and knowing that Theora is supported in Chrome better than H.264 is (H.264 support for Chrome on Linux requires a special FLOSS library installation of H.264), it’s obvious they’ll be releasing VP8 as open and not patent-encumbered imminently. Remember we’re talking about the company that refused to put ads on its web site for years because it would make Search too slow and encumbered.
    Obviously, thinking logically and financially-wise, Google isn’t going to re-encode its entire library of videos in Theora after having spent so much time re-encoding everything in H.264 when Theora is less efficient. Always keep in mind Google’s leaders when talking about Google; see Larry Page arguing over the fact same-quality Theora video would be “too big” and “too slow” to load (it’s in an order of 1.6 times the bandwidth to achieve the same quality as H.264).
    Conversely, VP8 would prove beneficial as it is more compact than H.264 for the same quality. In other words, faster or better quality is what Google most likely requires for its next codec, and Theora fails at achieving any of these goals, hence the lack of support on YouTube HTML 5.
    In the end though, it’s important to remember these are just experimental releases. YouTube is far from ready to adopt HTML 5 video as a standard supported feature (heck, it’s still a draft standard) and in my opinion won’t do so before having done something with On2’s VP8. It just doesn’t make sense for a company that uses GIMP to do all their graphics because they don’t want to pay for Photoshop (and didn’t have the money for in the past) to stick with H.264 on such an opportunity.

    Google would not have bought On2 if they were going to stick with paying H.264 license fees. Does anybody out there really think Google intends on paying H.264 licensing fees for-ever? It really strikes me as odd that people are worrying that much about the whole H.264 thing. It’s almost as if everyone suddenly forgot how Google has always worked in the past. Quick heads-up; this is not Microsoft or Apple!

  • “there’s more to it than just ideology”

    Yes, it is a licensing issue, but that is only a side story to the ideology of the GPL. The real story here goes back at least one level, to the in-fighting over the HTML spec (not just with v5 – previous versions too), which means that this has not been cleared up where it should be.
    This is not the fault of Mozilla developers for building something that works, any more than it is the fault of Safari developers for also building something that works.

    I don’t really see what the problem is for Mozilla though – they manage to support Flash, so what is so different about video?

  • adimauro

    When large video streaming sites weigh up their potential audience, will they really choose to ignore 30% of it? Unlikely.

    I don’t think they will…they are providing an HTML5 site, but I imagine that for the foreseeable future, they will keep the flash site going. Then FF users will just have to use the Flash site.

    From the Vimeo announcement linked above:

    All told, about 35% of all videos will still require the standard Flash player. In this case, Vimeo will automatically switch for you. It should just always work.

    I’m sure it will be similar for YouTube. It’s not as if Flash is going away anytime soon.

  • Musk

    @Pacoup: Flash is not provided by Moziall it is provided as a plugin for FF the provider is Adobe.

    I don’t care which codec wins at last as long as it is free as in freedom.

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