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Google betas Flash-free YouTube sans open codec

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Google has publicly released an experimental YouTube player that uses the HTML5 video tag, as it continues the (very) slow process of moving the world's most popular video-sharing site away from Adobe Flash.

As you may or may not expect, the player does not embrace the open and license free Ogg Theora codec. Announced yesterday on the YouTube blog, it sticks with H.264, the same video codec used by the current version of YouTube. Among other things, this means it will not work with Opera or Firefox. And it can only be used with Internet Explorer if you turn the Microsoft browser into a Google browser using Mountain View's controversial Chrome Frame plug-in.

A Google spokesman indicated that the choice of H.264 over Ogg does not mean the company has picked H.264 for an eventual Flash-free version of YouTube. "Support for HTML5 is just a TestTube experiment at this time and a starting point," he said. "We can't comment specifically on what codecs we intend to support, but we're open to supporting more of them over time. At the very least we hope to help further this active and ongoing discussion."

HTML5 video is a bit of thorny issue among the major browser makers. Opera and Mozilla are adamant that they will only support Ogg. Apple won't budge from H.264. Google has straddled the line between the two, offering support for both in its Chrome browser. And Microsoft is, well, dragging its feet when it comes to the still-gestating HTML5 standard.

As a result, the HTML5 spec does not specify a video codec. Browser makers are free to use any codec with the tag. Microsoft uses nothing. Unlike Firefox, Opera, Chrome, and Apple's Safari, Internet Explorer 8 does not support the HTML5 video tag.

Opera and Firefox back Ogg because it's open and license free. "Anything else does not fit with the entire Mozilla mission," Mike Beltzner, head of Firefox development at the open source–obsessed outfit, recently told The Reg. But Apple insists that Ogg provides scant hardware support and an “uncertain patent landscape.”

Google claims that it's the most open company on earth, but its commercial aims often limit its openness. So it is with online video, and this has sparked harsh criticism from Mozilla. Flash - the basis for the current YouTube - uses H.264, and Google has said it's reluctant to switch to Ogg for performance reasons.

Provided you have the right browser, "HTML5 on YouTube" - as Google calls it - lets you view videos without a Flash plug-in. Or any other plug-in, for that matter. It does not yet support videos with ads, captions, or annotations, but Google says: "We will be expanding the capabilities of the player in the future, so get ready for new and improved versions in the months to come."

You can try the player by visiting the YouTube TestTube site or you can join YouTube's HTML5 beta program here. ®

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