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Windows Firefox stiffs Adobe Flash, plays H.264 YouTube vids

Any HTML5 site using patent-heavy codec welcomed

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Users of the Firefox web browser on Windows can now dump Adobe Flash and still watch H.264-encoded videos online.

Fresh overnight builds of Firefox 20 will now play footage found on HTML5 websites, such as YouTube and Vimeo, that use the patent-encumbered video codec - without the need for Adobe's oft-criticised plugin, which also handles H.264.

The Mozilla Foundation, which makes Firefox, slipped support for the popular video compression standard into beta-test versions of its browser by drilling into Microsoft's Windows Media Foundation, which does the actual H.264 video decoding.

Mozilla is averse to proprietary codecs because they're typically buried under patents and require a licensing fee. By using the video support built into the operating system, the open-source browser maker can sidestep these constraints.

The codec support is not enabled by default and requires at least Windows Vista, although support isn't there for Windows 8 yet. Official Firefox 20 builds are due to be released in April 2013.

Firefox for Android 4.x already supports H.264, again using the operating system and underlying hardware to decode the video for playback. Mozilla reluctantly added the ability to play the high-definition format on Google's platform in March to compete in the mobile arena.

The organisation had hoped patent-free codecs, such as Google’s VP8, would succeed at the expense of H.264 on the web, but that hasn’t happened. Google bought VP8 in 2009 as WebM from On2 Technologies for $124.6m and released it under a royalty-free licence in May 2010.

However, H.264, which is licensed from the MPEG-LA patent pool, remains the standard for video playback for desktop web browsing and handheld devices.

As Firefox on Android gained support for the codec, Mozilla chief technology officer Brendan Eich wrote at the time: “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." ®

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