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19 March 2012, 15:33

Mozilla to allow OS level codecs including H.264

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Mozilla is to change its policy on H.264 and the HTML5 <video> element and allow the Firefox browser to make use of any codec, including H.264, installed in the underlying operating system. The news came in a post by Mozilla Foundation Chair, Mitchell Baker who described Mozilla as "on the cusp of changing our policy". Baker signals the end of the old policy which sees Firefox alone in exclusively supporting Google's WebM codec saying that "It’s time to focus on shipping products people can love now, and to work on developing a new tactic for bringing unencumbered technology to the world of audio and video codecs". Baker says the current approach is not working and is "even less likely to work in the future".

The issue came to the fore last week when a proposal was made by Mozilla's Director of Research, Andreas Gal, who wants to use hardware accelerated audio and video on mobile devices; enabling that support would in turn mean a change of policy that could enable the same support on desktop systems and allow the browser, where it was available, to use the patent- and royalty-encumbered H.264 video codec. A discussion ensued, but it appears that Mozilla has gone for the option of supporting operating system installed codecs.

Brendan Eich, Mozilla CTO, posted extensive background on the issue and explained why Mozilla was adopting the proposal to allow Firefox to use operating system supplied codecs when playing HTML5 <video>, including H.264. One part of the reasoning was that in the mobile world, video decoding is already done in the hardware and, for example, all Android browsers and Chrome on Android 4 support H.264 to compete with Apple in mobile.

"Google is in my opinion not going to ship mobile browsers this year or next that fail to play H.264 content that Apple plays perfectly" said Eich "Whatever happens in the very long run, Mozilla can’t wait for such an event. Don’t ask Google why they bought On2 but failed to push WebM to the exclusion of H.264 on Android. The question answers itself". On YouTube, for example, Eich said that Google's YouTube only used WebM on videos without advertising and that it appears that only half of YouTube's videos had been transcoded to WebM. "All this is moot when you consider mobile, since there is no Flash on mobile, and as of yet no WebM hardware, and Apple’s market-leading position", he added.

He noted that Mozilla had not rejected plugins because they played encumbered formats and feels that OS level codecs like H.264 are no different. Eich states that Mozilla will not require anyone to pay for Firefox and not burden downstream users of Firefox with royalty fees. The only issue appears to be Windows XP where there is no default H.264 codec installed.

Both Baker and Eich are dedicated though to continuing the battle: "We’ll keep working hard to bring unencumbered codecs to the web" says Baker. Eich sets out a new battlefield of keeping the WebRTC audio/video chat framework unencumbered and adds "Mozilla is here for the long haul. We will never give up, never surrender".


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