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Mozilla is doing a deal with the patent devil to serve video to users via Firefox on smartphones and tablets.

The freedom-luvvin’ web shop will allow Firefox to play video on existing decoders on devices, including the patent-encumbered H.264, licensed by the MPEG-LA patent pool. In a project here, the decoding would work on Android and for Mozilla's Boot to Gecko project, and would play HTML5 web content using a device’s hardware rather than operating-system specific APIs.

H.264 was created by Microsoft, Apple and others and dominates video compression and playback on the web and in devices.

Mozilla had resisted supporting H.264 on principle, in the belief it was giving netizens personal freedom and making the web a freer place by shunning non-open codecs.

The group had hoped that patent-free codecs would prevail, especially Google’s VP8, which was released under a royalty-free licence in May 2010 by the web giant. Google spent $124.6m on VP8, which it bought with On2 Technologies as WebM in 2009.

However, VP8 has seen relatively small uptake, while H.264 continues to dominate.

Mozilla Foundation chair Mitchell Baker blogged her group’s policy of not supporting unencumbered codecs hasn’t worked.

“We have tried to avoid this for a number of years, as H.264 is encumbered by patents. The state of video on the web today and in mobile devices in particular is pushing us to change our policy,” she said.

“It’s time to focus on shipping products people can love now, and to work on developing a new tactic for bringing unencumbered technology to the world of audio and video codecs.”

Mozilla chief technology officer Brendan Eich said here: “What I do know for certain is this: H.264 is absolutely required right now to compete on mobile. I do not believe that we can reject H.264 content in Firefox on Android or in B2G and survive the shift to mobile.”

He pointed to the fact Android stock browsers and Chrome on Android 4 all support H.264 for <video>, with Google competing against Apple. Apple is one of the authors of H.264 and ships hardware that Eich called “the gold standard.”

Two years ago, when Google open-sourced VP8, the Choc Factory said it believed “high-quality video compression technology should be a part of the web platform.”

The consensus of Eich and Baker is Mozilla gave “VP8 and others a chance, but these failed and continuing to wait around risks seeing Firefox slide into irrelevance".

Eich added: “Google is, in my opinion, not going to ship mobile browsers this year or next that fail to play H.264 content that Apple plays perfectly. Whatever happens in the very long run, Mozilla can’t wait for such an event. Don’t ask Google why they bought On2 but failed to push WebM to the exclusion of H.264 on Android. The question answers itself.

“Failure on mobile is too likely to consign Mozilla to decline and irrelevance.”

Mozilla is clearly struggling to reconcile the stance with its philosophy. Both Eich and Baker say the fight to keep the web free and open hasn’t changed, it has just moved on. Eich said the focus is now to keep WebRTC unencumbered – WebRTC is the Google project for real-time communications in browsers using Javascript and HTML5. WebRTC is based on the framework Google bought with Global IP Solutions for $68.2m in 2010. WebRTC could be used in applications like video chat and it builds on Google’s VP8.

Worryingly for fans of VP8, H.264 licence enforcer MPEG LA has been looking into establishing a patent pool against VP8. Such a pool would assemble those who feel they have a claim to patents in VP8. After staking their claims, the would-be patent-holders would then turn to enforcing the patents, either through prosecution or though licensing.

Eich said: “WebRTC is a new front in the long war for an open and unencumbered web.”

Baker tried to reassure Mozillans and free-web fans that her group hasn't given up on them. “We shouldn’t beat ourselves up for somehow failing to live up to Mozilla’s values," she said. "We’ll find a way around this impasse. We have some of the world’s most creative and dedicated people working on open video and video technologies. "We’ll rebuild the maze if we have to. We’ll keep working hard to bring unencumbered codecs to the web. We’ll be more effective at building products people can love as we do this. We should do so proudly.” ®

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