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With the beta release of its latest desktop browser, Opera now gives you plug-in-free video.

The Opera 10.5 beta joins Mozilla's Firefox, Apple's Safari, and Google's Chrome in offering support for the HTML5 video tag - which Opera first proposed back in 2007. This leaves Microsoft's Internet Explorer as the odd browser out.

Not that Opera, Mozilla, Google, and Apple can agree on the best way to handle HTML5 <video> element. Like Mozilla, Opera uses the open and license-free Ogg Theora video codec - and only Ogg. Apple opts for the H.264 codec, a patented technology that requires license fees. And Google offers support for both, playing both sides of the "open" debate.

Opera's Bruce Lawson and Patrick Lauke offer an entertaining introduction to the HTML5 video tag here. Among other things, it includes an HTML5-friendly video of Lawson as a Turkish belly dancer.

"The markup for the new HTML5 <video> element is an order of magnitude more readable and understandable compared to what we currently have to do in order to get Flash movies into our markup," they write. "The major advantage of the HTML5 <video> element is that finally video is a fully-fledged citizen on the Web, rather than being shunted off to the hinterland of object or the non-validating embed element."

Except that browser makers can't agree on a codec.

With two separate HTML5 video codecs in use on the world's big-name browsers, Lawson and Lauke show web developers how they can encode videos for both codecs using the tag. That still leaves out Internet Explorer, which plays video via plug-ins like Adobe Flash. But the Opera men also point to a clever workaround from UK developer Kroc Camen that uses the HTML5 video tag but automatically falls back on QuickTime or Flash if a browser can't handle the new tag.

"Of course, if the browsers that don't support the <video> element fall back to using QuickTime or Flash plugins, we're really back where we started, and we won't be able to take advantage of any of the new features and improvements [available with HTML5 video]," Lawson and Lauke write.

"What's the point then?, you may ask. We would say that this is a transitional solution, until native video support hits all major browsers. It's a case of graceful degradation - users may receive a slightly cut-down version of your page, but at least they're able to see your movies."

Google recently unveiled an "experimental" HTML5 version of its YouTube video player, but it only uses H.264, so it won't work with Opera - or Firefox. And it won't work with Internet Explorer unless you turn it into a Google browser using Mountain View's controversial Chrome Frame plug-in.

Flash - which underpins the old-school YouTube - uses H.264, and Google has said it's reluctant to switch to Ogg for performance reasons. But the company has not ruled out the possibility of the site supporting more than one codec after the switch to HTML5. "Support for HTML5 is just a TestTube experiment at this time and a starting point," a company spokesman told us.

"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."

Apple refuses to use Ogg Theora in Safari because of what it calls scant hardware support and an “uncertain patent landscape.” And Mozilla, in particular, refuses to back down from Ogg, citing H.264 license fees. "These license fees affect not only browser developers and distributors, but also represent a toll booth on anyone who wishes to produce video content," says Mozilla vice president of engineering Mike Shaver.

"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."

In an apparent attempt solve the standoff, Google is working to purchase On2 Technologies, whose VP3 codec is the basis for Ogg Theora. In 2001, On2 open-sourced VP3 under an irrevocable free license. But since then, the company continued to improve its codecs, and it would appear that Google is interested in open-sourcing VP8, the latest version, and other newer Ogg technologies. ®

Bootnote

Opera has also announced that its Opera Mini browser now has 50 million active users, calling it the world's most popular mobile browser. The company says the number of Mini users grew from 20 million monthly uniques in January 2009 to 50 million monthly uniques in January 2010, a 150 per cent jump.

Next week, the company will unveil a version of Opera Mini for the iPhone, hoping to gain entry into Apple's App Store.

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