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Mozilla buries heels on un-YouTube open video

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Mozilla vice president of engineering Mike Shaver has reiterated that the open source outfit has no intention of rolling the H.264 video codec into its Firefox browser, even though the likes of YouTube and Vimeo are using the patented codec with early versions of their plug-in-free HTML5 video players.

Firefox supports the HTML video tag used by these players, but it opts for the open and license-free Ogg Theora codec rather than H.264, which is a patented technology in many countries.

Shaver says that even if Mozilla were wiling to pay its own license fees on the codec, it doesn't want a web that asks for such fees from countless others. "These license fees affect not only browser developers and distributors, but also represent a toll booth on anyone who wishes to produce video content," Shaver wrote on his personal blog over the weekend.

"And if H.264 becomes an accepted part of the standardized web, those fees are a barrier to entry for developers of new browsers, those bringing the web to new devices or platforms, and those who would build tools to help content and application development."

If Firefox adopts H.264, Shaver says, it will immediately force such fees onto countless outfits with close ties to Mozilla. "There is no apparent means for us to license H.264 under terms that would cover other users of our technology, such as Linux distributors, or people in affiliated projects like Wikimedia or the Participatory Culture Foundation. Even if we were to pay the $5,000,000 annual licensing cost for H.264, and we were to not care about the spectre of license fees for internet distribution of encoded content, or about content and tool creators, downstream projects would be no better off."

And in the long term, Shaver and company hope to engender a web that works the same for everyone. "We want to make sure that the Web experience is good for all users, present and future," he continues.

"I want that not only altruistically, but also because I want the crazy awesome video (animation, peer-to-peer, security, etc.) ideas that will come from having more people, with more perspectives, fully participating in the internet. The web is undeniably better for Mozilla having entered the browser market, and it would have been impossible for us to do so if there had been a multi-million-dollar licensing fee required for handling HTML, CSS, JavaScript or the like."

Due to ongoing disagreements among the major browser makers, the still-gestating HTML5 spec does not specify a video codec for its new video tag. Like Mozilla, Opera backs Ogg Theora. Apple is adamant that H.264 is the only option because Ogg Theora offers scant hardware support and an "uncertain patent landscape." Google is playing both sides, saying that Ogg doesn't offer the performance required by a site like YouTube. And as usual, Microsoft is playing the standards laggard.

Last week, Google publicly unveiled an "experimental" HTML5 video player for YouTube, and though it uses H.264, a company spokesman indicated the site may eventually offer support for multiple codecs. Then Vimeo followed with its own H.264-based HTML5 player.

Because of their reliance on H.264, neither of these will work with Opera or Firefox. But they will work will Safari and Chrome, and they'll work with Internet Explorer if you use Google's controversial Chrome Frame plug-in to turn the Microsoft browser into a Google browser.

Last summer, DailyMotion released an HTML5 player that works with Ogg Theora. This works with Firefox, Opera, and Chrome, which supports both Ogg and H.264, but not (un-Googlified) IE or Safari.

Despite this splintered video landscape, Shaver is confident that the big players will eventually reach an solution that's free of H.264. "I very much believe that Google (both the Chrome and YouTube teams), Vimeo and many others share our desire to have a web with full-featured, high-performance, unencumbered, natively-integrated video, and I look very much forward to us all working - together and separately - towards that end," he says.

Google is working to purchase On2 Technologies, and it looks like the Mountain View giant is interested in open sourcing the outfit's video codecs to provide a license-free option offering performance above and beyond Ogg.

On2’s VP3 codec is the basis for Ogg Theora. In 2001, On2 open sourced VP3 under an irrevocable free license through an agreement with The Xiph.org Foundation. But in the years since, the company has improved on its technology, with the VP codex now in its eighth iteration. ®

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