Monday, January 25th, 2010

Taking a stance: Comparing video codec issue (H.264) to ActiveX

Category: Mozilla

Sometimes you need to compromise, but at others you need to lead and take a stance. Our politicians do far too much via polls, and I often find myself wishing for more leadership. I could start talking about Obama and the healthcare issue in the US….. but this is a technical blog so I won’t put you through that.

Robert O’Callahan (moz layout guru) shares why he thinks Mozilla should stand firm on the H.264 issue comparing it to the ActiveX issue from the past.

With Chrome and Safari supporting H.264 (and not open video formats such as Ogg Theora) some users and developers have asked for Mozilla to support it too in Firefox. Mozilla is certainly a user-centric group (which is how they have gotten so far with Firefox) but remember that they are mission based: to keep the Internet open.

Here is some of RoCs opinion. I am glad he shared it:

Taking such positions is nothing new for Mozilla and history has proved us right for doing so, in particular regarding ActiveX and Web standards in general.

Perhaps it’s not widely known, but Gecko has had code to support hosting ActiveX controls, dating back as far as 1999. ActiveX controls are very much like system video codecs. ActiveX support would have been very useful to users ever since 1999, and still would be now — certainly in corporate intranets, and everywhere in China and South Korea. Enabling ActiveX support would probably boost our market share significantly. Most users have useful ActiveX controls on their machines. But for the last ten years, even during Mozilla’s most desperate days, we have consistently refused to turn this feature on, because we believe that ActiveX is not good for the Web.

I’m not suggesting that the consequences of exposing system codecs to the Web would be identical to exposing ActiveX. That’s unlikely, and unknowable. But favouring our principles over short-term gains for users is nothing new for Mozilla, and when we’ve done it in the past, history shows it was the right thing to do.

Chris Blizzard has a very detailed perspective too, linking up the history of GIF, MP3, and On2 :)

Posted by Dion Almaer at 7:01 am

4.1 rating from 38 votes


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My question is… if a browser supports many formats, is it common that they allow you to prioritize them? I don’t use firefox, but definately want to promote ogg theora, so I’d like Safari to use it when possible, over H.264.

Comment by JohnDeHope3 — January 25, 2010

@JohnDeHope3 That is not something a browser can do by itself. The website decides what is sent to the browser, and the browser has to decode whatever it receives.

Personally, I think this is a huge mistake by Mozilla. That kind of license politics is what has kept Linux from entering the desktop market for years (who want an OS without 3d-acceleration or Flash available?). It makes Firefox an inferior browser compared to its competitors, and people will quickly learn that other browsers support video formats that Firefox doesn’t.

Comment by fuzzy76 — January 25, 2010

@JohnDeHope3: include the ogg src before the h264 src – simple as that!

Comment by rasmusfl0e — January 25, 2010

what about Theora can’t compare to h264 in quality? I prefer good looking images rather than open standards, until community will be able to make it far enough to release a competing product.

Comment by gram — January 25, 2010

The web should use only free open formats. Otherwise, we’re at the mercy of companies to charge us or otherwise do things their way instead of our way. Thanks you, Mozilla, for being on our side here.

This will be a long hard fight, I think. Apple, and soon MS will both push hard for formats that give them an advantage. I hope that Google and Adobe will take our side and bank that by creating tools that work with OGG, they can keep the field open. This means:

* Server components that translate to OGG on the fly
* Plugins that let other browsers display OGG [video]
* Integrate OGG into Flash, etc as first class citizen
* Push for OGG to be in all operating systems by bundling with Flash or any other commonly installed software
* Hardware decoding OGG in Nexus One

Comment by jamienk — January 25, 2010

As much as I admire Mozilla for taking the stance, if they’re alone in this they’re probably going to lose. I’d like to see Google joint he Ogg Theora camp and push for it.

Comment by iliad — January 25, 2010

The problem with h.264 is that after 2013, you won’t be able to legally publish a h.264 video on the net without negotiating a license with MPEG-LA. And that costs a whole lot of time and money, a lot more than anybody but YouTube and Vimeo can afford.
But since they can and since paying a few millions (there’s a limit for how much you have to pay MPEG-LA) isn’t a whole lot if you break it down per user, it doesn’t bother them too much. In fact they’re probably very happy, since h.264 gives them a monopoly for net video distribution (almost) free of charge.
So YouTube will really become the only way to host video. Isn’t that worrying?

Comment by hansschmucker — January 25, 2010

I thought Chrome supported Vorbis and Theora. I also recall reading that Opera would support the open source codecs as well. Wouldn’t this make Safari the only one that doesn’t natively support them? This is of course excluding IE. Who knows if or when they will support anything at all…

Comment by Welles1941 — January 25, 2010

Everyone has seem to have forgotten that Google bought On2.

All our effort should be convincing them to Open Source the older Vp6 codex ( which shouldn’t be that difficult ).

Comment by ronin691 — January 25, 2010

@Welles1941 Chrome does, but youtube doesn’t, sadly enough.

@hansschmucker I don’t know, video hosting on my personal websites seem to work just fine. Don’t use youtube.

Comment by mdmadph — January 25, 2010

@mdmadph Of course it works, but it will be illegal without a license from 2013 on. A license that costs money.

Comment by hansschmucker — January 25, 2010

There may be better codecs than open codecs but still we should support open standards. Like most of us, Mozilla is sure about that technology is being improved faster when it’s open. We have to support open standards, not capitalists who make slower development of the technology for making more money.

Comment by azer — January 25, 2010

Anyone working on a Theora decoder for Silverlight or Flash? I know the Mozilla folks don’t think it’s a good idea, but that doesn’t mean someone else couldn’t do it (I have neither the codec knowledge/experience or the time to get it). There are already two implementations of Vorbis (one in native C through Alchemy and one in a language called haXe, which can compile to AVM2 bytecode to run in Flash Player). I wonder what performance would be like if done through Alchemy.

Comment by CaptainN — January 25, 2010

I agree with Mozilla on this one. Let’s leave it open.

Comment by crock — January 25, 2010

Im really not sure about Checks assertation that the license for h264 ‘changes every year’ or the comments here that mention 2013 as being the year of woe for h264 licensing. As far as I know there are certain dates where it changes, and the big test will be the end of this year when the initial licensing terms end and a new policy takes effect. When that happens it could be very bad, but there is also every chance that they will keep the use of h264 free if you dont have millions of viewers, post very long videos or charge money for the videos. Time will tell.

I would far rather we were using something open, but the hurdles seem great. Its a waste of resources to have to offer video in multiple formats, there is a terrible lack off video tools that support theora creation, and h264 is dominating all over the place, including hardware decoding of the video. It will take a lot to change this picture, and there is something a bit funny about having to look to Google to save us. Not that their purchase of on2 is complete yet anyway, I think the on2 shareholders vote on it in February.

Comment by SteveElbows — January 26, 2010

If mozilla does not have to include the H.264 source but can just use the codecs installed in the host OS, everybody wins.

I personally would like to be able to play a video in ANY format through a

Comment by Jaaap — January 26, 2010

Actually maybe I was wrong and they could choose to change h.264 license terms whenever they like with little notice, but without some rash and draconian changes Im not sure that h.264 licensing issues will cause large enough headaches to enough people to give the alternatives much momentum beyond the world of browser development. Certainly some extremely serious weight will have to be thrown behind alternatives for there to be any chance of displacing h.264, as the h.264 experience, tools & other practicalities have reached a mature level, along with the mass of content on various platforms which is already in h.264 format, make it a very steep hill to climb.

Comment by SteveElbows — January 26, 2010

Thank you Mozilla for doing the **RIGHT** thing and not necessarily the “right” thing…!
The YouTube/H.264 video/HTML5 news was really quite disturbing for me … :(

Comment by ThomasHansen — January 27, 2010

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