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Microsoft's Internet Explorer 9 shuns open video

Empire strikes back with H.264

hands waving dollar bills in the air

Microsoft has voted to keep internet video a closed art form.

In a Friday blog post, Internet Explorer general manager Dean Hachamovitch said that the forthcoming Internet Explorer 9 will only play HTML5 video using the H.264 codec.

That means Microsoft has ruled against using the open-source Ogg Theora codec from Xiph.og, following in the footsteps of Apple and Steve Jobs. Today, Jobs once again spoke out against Ogg, claiming that "a patent pool is being assembled to go after Theora and other 'open source' codecs."

Hachamovitch didn't name Theora directly. But he certainly alluded to it when he said that with "other codecs," there could be problems with patents.

Hachamovitch noted that the source code and intellectual property rights for H.264 are broadly available - through a "well-defined program" managed by MPEG LA. There have been suggestions, notably by MPEG LA, that Ogg Theora violates patents - a claim denied by Xiph.org.

Hachamovitch called H.264 a broadly-used industry standard, saying you've got a pretty good chance of hassle-free playback with the codec. He also said: "Developers can rely on the H.264 codec and hardware acceleration support of the underlying operating system, like Windows 7, without paying any additional royalty."

H.264 is indeed a standard. It's administered by MPEG LA. And it's widely used by consumer devices, PCs, and other systems. But Hachamovitch didn't mention that Microsoft - along with Apple and a collection of consumer device manufacturers responsible for video cameras, TVs sets and a host of gadgets - is a member of MPEG LA. The codec contains patented video compression and playback technology from Microsoft that the MPEG LA licenses to other companies.

Developers won't pay "any additional royalty" for H.264 because MPEG LA charges PC makers, software companies, and services providers that offer the tools for playing video using the codec.

Given that Microsoft co-authored H.264, it's little surprise that Hachamovitch should neatly conclude: "We think H.264 is an excellent format."

This is not Microsoft's first move to promote H.264 on the web. Microsoft's Flash challenger - the browser-based video player Silverlight - added H.264 last year. And Hachamovitch demonstrated the use of H.264 in IE 9 at the company's Mix conference this spring.

But the move is still curious. HTML 5 - as yet unfinished by the W3C - is an open specification. So why would anybody chose to lock video based on an open technology into a closed codec for play back? Opera Software and Mozilla both eschew H.264 in favor of Ogg Theora.

IE still accounts for two thirds of browsing, but it's market share has been dropping while alternatives Firefox and Chrome have grown. According to W3schools, uptake of latest version of IE is sluggish - even with the usual boost that comes from a new version of Windows.

When Microsoft announced at Mix that it was fully endorsing HTML 5 with IE 9, the reaction was like the closing scenes of Return of the Jedi, when races across the galaxy celebrated the fall of The Empire.

But the decision to go proprietary on HTML 5 video is more like the kick in the balls you got at the end of The Empire Strikes Back. It will be greeted with grim acceptance by netizens who believe software patents make business needlessly expensive and confer the power on a chosen few.

Microsoft's move will be seen as bold step towards ushering H.264 in as a de facto standard - and a setback to the cause of free and open web video.

Bootnote

Hachamovitch also have a back-handed compliment to Adobe Flash, the development platform that Steve Jobs is intent on destroying. Hachamovitch noted that most video on the web is Flash-based, but then came the backhand.

"Flash does have some issues, particularly around reliability, security, and performance," he said. "We work closely with engineers at Adobe, sharing information about the issues we know of in ongoing technical discussions. Despite these issues, Flash remains an important part of delivering a good consumer experience on today's web." ®

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