Feeds

Applesoft, Ogg, and the future of web video

Will the real open codec please stand up?

Boost IT visibility and business value

Two years ago, cosmonaut and Ubuntu founder Mark Shuttleworth challenged open sourcers to turn the Linux desktop into a piece of art.

They should "out Apple" Apple, he said. They should fashion beautiful software and online services that reach a wider audience of consumer users.

Shuttleworth's Canonical has now launched Ubuntu 10.04, which goes a long way towards that Mactastic vision, offering new tools for music and video and all sorts of online services, all swaddled in a cool (and purple) UI.

The biggest change is a first not just for Ubuntu but for all Linux distros: an online music store akin to iTunes, the Apple app that revolutionized over-the-air music services. Called Ubuntu One, this new service is integrated with Rhythmbox, Ubuntu's default system for playing and ripping songs.

But there's a catch - and it's a catch that won't please open source purists. Ubuntu One serves up tunes via MP3 - the ubiquitous but proprietary and patented format for coding and decoding music - and it won't use Ogg Vorbis, the patent-free open-source alternative from Xiph.org that's offered under the GPL and a BSD-like license.

What's more, Canonical - Ubuntu's commercial sponsor - is now the only Linux maker to license H.264/AVC, the closed and patented technology used to compress video. Yes, there's an alternative to H.264. Yes, it's open source. And yes, it's free. It's called Ogg Theora, and it too is from Xiph.org.

Canonical's MP3 choice doesn't conform with pure open source ideology, but it's likely dictated by the sheer volume of music that already encoded with MP3. But the licensing of H.264 comes at the point in the web's evolution when netizens are crusading to prevent H.264 from becoming to video what MP3 is to music: a de-facto standard that must be licensed from patent holders.

The fate of this crusade could decide the future of the open web.

“It's probably not going to go over that well with the community because we all live under the threat of software patents”


 - SFLC counsel Aaron Williamson

Just as HTML5 is being touted as the way to build free and open web video, many of the big names doing the touting are also threatening to destroy that freedom. They're building video into browsers and applications using the closed and proprietary H.264.

The Software Freedom Law Center - the legal group that represents open source against patent holders and a famous defender of the GPL - told The Reg that the use of licensed and patented technologies like MP3 and H.264 by companies like Canonical could create bad feeling in the open-source community.

SFLC counsel Aaron Williamson said that while it might make sense for a commercial operation to license patented codecs in case it was prosecuted, "Linux distos - or other free software projects - shouldn't take licenses like that. It's probably not going to go over that well with the community because we all live under the threat of software patents."

Show me the money

While it's tempting to paint this as an academic debate - open source versus closed source - it's really about money. It's about profit and margins.

Chris "Monty" Montgomery - director of the Xiph.org Foundation, which sits behind Ogg Vorbis and Ogg Theora for music and video - said that the reason people should get behind open source is not philosophical. It's financial.

Hardware and software makers and internet service providers pay expensive fees to use MP3 or H.264. And those charging the fees - Thompson on MP3 and MPEG LA on H.264 - can always increase them. Some outfits opt for open source simply to avoid these fees. "The people...standing behind Ogg are doing it for a profit motive," Montgomery said bluntly.

One of those is Opera Software, whose latest browser - Opera 10.50 - gives you HTML5 video via the Ogg Theora video codec. Opera's chief technology officer Hakon Wium Lie supports open standards like Ogg because they mean companies don't have to pay a license that damages profits and margins. Opera is not an open-source browser. Ogg just makes business sense.

The Essential Guide to IT Transformation

More from The Register

next story
BBC goes offline in MASSIVE COCKUP: Stephen Fry partly muzzled
Auntie tight-lipped as major outage rolls on
iPad? More like iFAD: We reveal why Apple fell into IBM's arms
But never fear fanbois, you're still lapping up iPhones, Macs
Sonos AXES support for Apple's iOS4 and 5
Want to use your iThing? You can't - it's too old
Stick a 4K in them: Super high-res TVs are DONE
4,000 pixels is niche now... Don't say we didn't warn you
Philip K Dick 'Nazi alternate reality' story to be made into TV series
Amazon Studios, Ridley Scott firm to produce The Man in the High Castle
There's NOTHING on TV in Europe – American video DOMINATES
Even France's mega subsidies don't stop US content onslaught
You! Pirate! Stop pirating, or we shall admonish you politely. Repeatedly, if necessary
And we shall go about telling people you smell. No, not really
Too many IT conferences to cover? MICROSOFT to the RESCUE!
Yet more word of cuts emerges from Redmond
Joe Average isn't worth $10 a year to Mark Zuckerberg
The Social Network deflates the PC resurgence with mobile-only usage prediction
prev story

Whitepapers

Implementing global e-invoicing with guaranteed legal certainty
Explaining the role local tax compliance plays in successful supply chain management and e-business and how leading global brands are addressing this.
The Essential Guide to IT Transformation
ServiceNow discusses three IT transformations that can help CIO's automate IT services to transform IT and the enterprise.
Consolidation: The Foundation for IT Business Transformation
In this whitepaper learn how effective consolidation of IT and business resources can enable multiple, meaningful business benefits.
How modern custom applications can spur business growth
Learn how to create, deploy and manage custom applications without consuming or expanding the need for scarce, expensive IT resources.
Build a business case: developing custom apps
Learn how to maximize the value of custom applications by accelerating and simplifying their development.