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Dev goes 'Wild' with H.264 Firefox

'The only proper thing to do'

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A Dutch open source developer is building a version of Firefox that uses the HTML5 video tag in tandem with the H.264 codec.

Mozilla's official Firefox incarnation handles HTML5 video solely with the free and open Ogg Theora codec, sidestepping H.264 because it's a patented technology that carries license fees in certain countries. But with a project dubbed Wild Fox, the Netherlands-based Maya Posch - aka "Elledan" - seeks to offer an H.264-equipped version of the browser in countries where the patents don't apply.

The project also seeks to include additional tools that are missing from Firefox due to patent issues. "The Firefox project has opted to exclude certain features due to software patents, patents which are only valid in a small number of countries," Posch writes on the Wild Fox project page, recently launched at Sourceforge.

"This means that decisions have been made due to patents which do not apply in most parts of the world. The Wild Fox project aims to rectify this by releasing builds with these features included, builds which will of course only be available to those not in software patent-encumbered countries."

On the project page and in a post to Slashdot, Posch calls on other Firefox-friendly developers to join the effort. Two other devs have already jumped on board, Posch tells The Reg, and a Mozilla staffer is assisting with the project as well.

The idea is to start with the current stable version of the Firefox open source code - version 3.6.3 - and modify it with a new decoder. Posch tells us the project will include the open source GStreamer media framework, and this will likely handle H.264 decoding via the open GST ffmpeg codec.

The still-gestating HTML5 spec does not specify a video codec for use with the new video tag. The big name browser makers couldn't agree on one. Apple uses H.264 with Safari, and Microsoft will do the same with Internet Explorer. Mozilla and Opera use Ogg Theora. And Google's Chrome browser bundles both.

Apple and Microsoft say they've chosen H.264 because other codecs are vulnerable to patent suits, with Steve Jobs recently claiming that a patent pool is being put together to "go after" Ogg Theora. It's unclear whether Apple would be part of this pool. Both Apple and Microsoft are part of the group of patent holders that license H.264, and this group, the MPEG LA, has questioned whether Ogg violates the codec's patents.

But Mozilla is adamant that because of its license fees, it will not include H.264 in Firefox. "These license fees affect not only browser developers and distributors, but also represent a toll booth on anyone who wishes to produce video content," Mozilla vp of engineering Mike Shaver wrote in a personal blog post in January.

"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."

This means that Firefox - like Opera - will not play HTML5 video coded with H.264.

According to a recent study from research outfit MeFeedia, 26 per cent of all web video is now available for playback with the HTML5 video tag and the H.264 codec, and MeFeedia tells us that Ogg is at around one per cent.

At the moment, even Google is opting for H.264 with the experimental HTML5 player it offers with YouTube. The company doesn't rate the performance of Ogg. But the rumor is that Google will soon open source the high-performing codecs it nabbed with the acquisition of On2 Technologies earlier this year.

Mike Shaver and Mozilla have excluded H.264 from Firefox in part because they don't want to promote its use. They don't want it morphing into a de facto standard, forcing license fees on the world at large. Wild Fox will avoid those license fees in the short term, but you could also argue that it could push the codec closer to the sort of de facto standard that Shaver fears.

For Maya Posch, this is nothing but a good thing. "First of all, software patents are a rarity in the world and I think it's pointless to have everyone suffer because two or maybe three countries have software patents," she tells us. "I also am convinced that if there's enough at stake, piles of patents will appear which Theora and other 'open' codecs will infringe upon, forcing everyone to pay license fees after all.

"The only proper thing to do at this point is to make a stand - for those in software-patent encumbered countries, and for those at risk of introducing such patents in the future, including the EU."

If Google open sources On2's VP8 codec, it may solve any performance issues it has with Ogg, she says, but an open VP8 will face the same patent problems. "I'm convinced some big companies would be able to slap [an open VP8] silly with patent infringement claims as well if it were to take off. The nasty thing about software patents, especially in the US, is that virtually everything can be patented." ®

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