Anyone who likes plot twists would do well to follow the current quest for a video codec acceptable to be used natively in web browsers to replace Adobe’s laggard Flash plugin. First, Opera proposes the <video> tag to do plugin-less video based on Ogg Theora. Then Apple implements the proposed spec into Safari based on its Quicktime library (with a focus on using the H.264 codec in an MP4 container). Firefox introduces its own implementation based on Theora. Late to the party, Google introduces <video> into Chrome which supports both H.264 and Theora (but neither very well). Opera finally releases its own Theora-capable browser, and Internet Explorer, the behemoth of browser behemoths, does what no one else thought thinkable only a short time ago and announces support for <video>… based on H.264. Web browsers aren’t the only place where there’s been an ideological tug of war. Dailymotion and Wikipedia were both early adopters of HTML5 <video>, proponents of Theora (but also supporting H.264 in the case of the former). Not to be outdone, within a week of one another, Vimeo and Google’s own Youtube announce HTML5 H.264 support. And since the iPad’s release, CNN, Reuters, New York Times, Time, ESPN, NPR, the White House, Sports Illustrated, People Magazine, TED, CBS, and Spin have all debuted HTML5 video enabled websites, all based on H.264.
But, just as all but the funeral procession had taken place for Theora, the game changes again. Google purchased On2 (the original developers of Theora) some weeks ago, leading to speculation that they would open source the much higher-quality VP8, but amidst that speculation, just this week announced that they were funding an ARM-optimized port of Theora that would play back optimally on mobile devices without the need for a dedicated hardware decoder. What? Now, the actual announcement isn’t that significant, as Android (the most obvious place that Google could apply this) is yet a fledgling platform. An ARM port pales in the significance of Microsoft sanctioning H.264 for Internet Explorer 9. But what is significant is that Google is very publicly stating its support for Theora and declared that it is, in fact, a patent free codec: “The overwhelming feature that makes it stand out from its rivals is the fact it’s free. Really free. Not just ‘free to use in decoders,’ or ‘free to use if you agree to this complicated license agreement,’ but really, honestly, genuinely, 100% free.”. This, from the same company who had a representative declare on the official WHAT-WG mailing list developing HTML5 that if they were to convert the videos on Youtube to Theora and “maintain even a semblance of the current youtube quality it would take up most available bandwidth across the internet.”
The virtues of both H.264 and Theora are well known. H.264 has greater tool and workflow support, it’s higher quality, and it’s already an industry standard from the professional videographer right down to Bluray and on to consumer camcorders. Theora is, well, none of those things. It’s virtually unknown, and certainly of lower quality. In fact, the only actual advantage that Theora does have is that it’s free. And that argument doesn’t really mean a lot to consumers who are looking for quality, bandwidth, and time to encode as factors. Especially since they load up OS X or Windows 7 or Silverlight or Flash and find that they already have an H.264 decoder warm and ready for them. I really wish there was an open, royalty- and license-free codec that did an excellent job across the board with video, but even with the tradeoffs, H.264 seems like the solution that makes the most sense right now.
One thing is certain, the title of Google’s blog post is correct. These indeed are “interesting times for video on the web.”