This lack of standard implementation across the browser market is just another form of a format war. Whilst they might all appear to be collaborating on the future of the web realistically they’re all fighting for their version of the web to become the standard. No longer is a company able to release a product like IE6 onto the market that plays fast and loose with the standards in favour of delivering more functionality as that will more than likely end up being ignored by the web development community. Now the war is mostly being raged through standards committees, but that doesn’t mean the same old strong arming tactics aren’t being used.
Last week Google announced that it would no longer be supporting the H.264 codec for the HTML5 <video> tag. The post triggered wide spread discussion about the future of the HTML5 standard and Google felt the need to clarify its position:
Why is Google supporting WebM for the HTML tag?
This week’s announcement was solely related to the HTML tag, which is part of the emerging set of standards commonly referred to as “HTML5.” We believe there is great promise in the tag and want to see it succeed. As it stands, the organizations involved in defining the HTML video standard are at an impasse. There is no agreement on which video codec should be the baseline standard. Firefox and Opera support the open WebM and Ogg Theora codecs and will not support H.264 due to its licensing requirements; Safari and IE9 support H.264. With this status quo, all publishers and developers using the tag will be forced to support multiple formats.
On the surface it would appear that Google is attempting to use its share of the browser market to put some pressure on the HTML5 standards committee to make WebM or Theora the default codec for <video> tag. For the most part that’s true and should they get their way Google will have control over yet another aspect of the web (in contrast to now when they’re just the dominating player thanks to YouTube). However whilst such a move might at first appear to only benefit Google, Mozilla and Opera I believe that a push away from H.264 is beneficial for everyone on the web, except for Microsoft and Apple.
You see whilst there’s no official agreement on what the default codec should be for HTML5 there are in fact 2 groups within the standards committee that agree wholeheartedly on which one should be the standard. Google, Mozilla and Opera all believe that WebM or Ogg Theora (or both!) should be the default standard whilst Apple and Microsoft both want H.264. The reason behind that is quite obvious when you look at the patent body responsible for licensing the H.264 technology, the MPEG-LA. Both Apple and Microsoft are have patents in the MPEG-LA patent pool meaning they have a vested interest in making it the default standard. This is the main reason why having H.264 as the default is bad Internet users and web standards as it would force anyone who develops HTML5 products using video to license the H.264 codec, something which could be quite devastating to early stage start ups. Additionally it encumbers what should be a completely open and free standard with licensing requirements, something that hasn’t been present in any web standard to date.
Whilst the decision doesn’ affect me directly, no matter which way it goes, I can’t support something that has the potential to stifle innovation like a licensing requirement does. Google throwing its weight behind its own and other open codecs has highlighted the issue succinctly and hopefully this will lead to more productive discussion around which (if any) codec will become the standard for HTML5. We’re still a long way from having a fully formalised version of HTMl5 that anyone can implement but it’s good to see some movement on this front, even if it’s just one web giant poking the trolls.