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HTML5's Flash and Silverlight 'killer' potential chopped

Web media oneness postponed

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Much has been made of how HTML5 will "kill" proprietary media tools and players from Adobe Systems and Microsoft.

The idea has been partly predicated on the fact those working on HTML5 would enshrine a baseline spec for audio and video codecs everybody could agree on, buy into, and support.

It's been helped along by statements from search giant Google. Vice president of developer products Vic Gundotra recently told developers to "bet on the web" as HTML5 would help deliver a "programming model and an end-user experience that will surprise and delight people."

But the hope of a universal media experience is now dead, at least for now. Apple, Mozilla, Opera, Microsoft, and - yes - Google could not agree on a common set of audio or video codecs for use in the proposed HTML5 spec.

That means major browsers and media player will continue to implement the codecs and APIs ordained by their owners as they’ve always done, leaving developers and customers to pick a side or go to the additional cost and effort of supporting different players.

Google HTML5 W3C representative Ian Hickson said he gave up on trying to reach agreement between the vendors, following an "inordinate amount of discussions."

Hickson said here: "I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that there is no suitable codec that all vendors are willing to implement and ship.

"I have therefore removed the two subsections in the HTML5 spec in which codecs would have been required, and have instead left the matter undefined, as has in the past been done with other features."

Debate appears to have centered on the inclusion of either Ogg Theora or H.264 or both.

Two hopes now remain.

The first is for Ogg Theora to improve to a level where it's considered mature enough by Apple and Google, who opposed its inclusion in HTML5, and for Ogg Theora to ship for long enough without claims of patent infringement being filed against those using the technology. Theora is the open source video compression technology part of the Ogg project.

The other option is for the patents held in connection with H.264 - and that the various owners refused to surrender - to expire and for H.264 to become available without a license.

With both scenarios, Hickson said they could then become de facto web standards rather than official standards. But he noted that both processes would take several years.

According to Hickson's account, discussions about putting Ogg Theora or H.264 into the HTML5 spec stalled on the issues of hardware support, maturity, patents, and licensing.

Apple refused to implement Ogg Theora in QuickTime, used in its Safari browser, "citing lack of hardware support and an uncertain patent landscape." Google has implemented Ogg Theora in Chrome - along with H.264 - but it "indicated a belief that Ogg Theora's quality-per-bit is not yet suitable for the volume handled by YouTube."

Google, Opera, and Mozilla choked on the fact they'd have to buy licenses from patent holders to implement H.264, a price Hickson characterized as "obscene."

IT vendors implementing H.264 must license the codecs from MPEG LA, a process that can cost individual companies millions of dollars. Microsoft has already jumped through this hoop, so it is in a position to make H.264 available codecs available to users of its media player or browser. But Hickson noted Microsoft did not comment on its intent to support video.

Moonlight, the open-source implementation of Microsoft's Silverlight that puts Microsoft's player on Linux and Unix, is trying to sidestep the H.264 license. Moonlight is adding support for Nvidia cards to offload the work of H.264 - and VC1 that must also be licensed from MPEG LA - decoding from the software player to the actual hardware.

Silverlight 3, due this Friday, will be the version of Microsoft's browser-based player to implement H.264. ®

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