Mozilla defends Firefox's HTML5 support for only Ogg Theora video
Since last week's announcement of the YouTube and Vimeo beta versions which use HTML5's <video> element, the Mozilla developers have been defending the fact that Firefox 3.6 cannot play the content on these betas even though it supports HTML5. The reason for the problem is that the HTML5 working groups decided not to specify which video codecs the <video> tag would support. The h264 standard, which is patented and licensed, has already been invested in by Google's YouTube and Vimeo to encode videos and Google's Chrome and Apple's Safari both support the use of h264 as a codec for the <video> element.
But Firefox 3.6 supports only the Ogg Theora video codec and, currently, no other codecs. Mozilla had pushed for the Ogg codec to be the default for the <video> element, but this was not supported by the HTML5 working group who decided to leave the codec unspecified in the developing standard. This means that Firefox is unable to play the YouTube and Vimeo HTML5 videos.
In blog postings made over the weekend, Mozilla's developers say that they are taking this position for the good of the web. They say they do not want to see a patented and licensed codec such as h264 embedded as the de facto standard for how video is delivered on the internet, and have instead implemented what they believe to be a patent and royalty free codec, namely Ogg Theora. The problem for users is that Firefox only supports Ogg Theora in <video> elements even on a operating system where an h264 codec is installed; there is currently no support for using those operating system level codecs within Firefox.
Mike Shaver, VP of Engineering at Mozilla, says in his blog that this is to avoid fragmentation, to support platforms like XP where there is no h264 codec by default (though one can be installed) and to ensure security by avoiding "exposing arbitrary codecs to hostile content". Christopher Blizzard, Mozilla's open source evangelist, also defends the decision saying that h264 has unpredictable licensing costs and refers back to the GIF and MP3 situations where a widely used, apparently royalty free format turned out to have patents and licence costs which emerged later, after the formats were ubiquitous on the web.
Some have observed that, although the support of Ogg Theora as a royalty-free format is a worthy position to take, the locking out of other codecs within Firefox is somewhat problematic. For example, for YouTube to support Ogg Theora, they would have to re-encode the many terabytes of video data on the service which are already encoded in h264. Google and Apple, among others, do not support Ogg Theora because, despite its billing as patent-free, there is a suspicion that it could be vulnerable to a submarine patent. Blizzard says that although this may be suspected it is unlike h264 which is both patented and subject to variable licence terms.
Blizzard also believes that Google's acquisition of On2 will lead to a new player in the video codec arena, a new royalty-free licensed codec based on On2's technology; Ogg Theora itself is based on the VP3 codec which was released into the public domain by On2 in 2001. Google have yet to announce any move in that direction and, even if they released a codec tomorrow, Firefox would have to be re-engineered to support it; if Firefox supported operating system installed codecs this latter step would not be needed. Until (and if) this happens, Firefox users will have to continue to use the proprietary, closed source and often vulnerable Flash plugin to view video from the most popular video sites.