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03 July 2009, 12:01

No mandatory audio and video codecs in HTML 5

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Ian Hickson, a Google employee involved in Google's work with the W3C and responsible for editing the forthcoming HTML 5 specification, has made a clean break with years of discussion regarding mandatory audio/video codecs in HTML 5. In a post on the WHATWG mailing list he says that, following endless public and private discussions, he has come to the conclusion that no codecs are likely to attract a consensus among the members of the Web Hypertext Application Technology Working Group (WHATWG) for integration into their browsers.

Previously, there had been a heated discussion of the proposal to incorporate the Ogg Theora (video) and Ogg Vorbis (audio) formats (which are not subject to patent licensing fees) as default formats for the planned video and audio elements in HTML 5 browsers. These could be used for playing back multimedia content on the internet without requiring the installation of proprietary plug-ins. Some firms, for example, feared a risk of "submarine patents", while others advocated the much more efficient H.264 (MPEG-4 AVC), although it does incur licence fees. Hickson summarizes the views of the browser developers as follows:

Apple declines to integrate Ogg Theora into the QuickTime used by Safari, pointing to a lack of hardware support and the uncertain patent situation. Although Google has incorporated H.264 and Theora into its Chrome browser, it says Ogg Theora doesn't yet deliver the "quality per bit" required for YouTube sites. Nor does Google feel in a position to supply an H.264 licence to Chrome distributors. Mozilla argues the same point and has backed Theora for Firefox 3.5.

Opera refuses to integrate H.264, finding the licence fees incredibly high. Microsoft hasn't yet said whether it's even considering supporting the video element.

All the same, Hickson doesn't want to give up completely on the concept of free media formats being directly supported in all browsers, and is presenting two – mutually exclusive – scenarios for the future. If Ogg Theora is further improved, if hardware supports the format, and if Google distributes the codec for long enough without being sued, Theora could become the de facto web standard. He sees chances for H.264 if the patents for the baseline profile expire, making at least the simplest incarnation of the codec available free of licence charges. So far, some patent holders are refusing to provide the H.264 baseline profiles free of licence fees.

In actual fact, H.264 is already well on the way to becoming the de facto standard for video, well beyond the internet. On the internet, since version 9 update 3, Flash Player has been able to play H.264 videos, and Microsoft's Silverlight 3 also supports the codec.

Hickson says the situation with audio isn't quite so dramatic, because besides Ogg Vorbis and MPEG 4 AAC there are many more options. There's also the fact that the patents for the de facto web standard MP3 will expire in a few years' time.


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