The Dark Side of HTML 5 Video

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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?

Louis SimoneauLouis Simoneau
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Louis joined SitePoint in 2009 as a technical editor, and has since moved over into a web developer role at Flippa. He enjoys hip-hop, spicy food, and all things geeky.

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