Just push a little harder, each of you, and I’m sure this will work out. Photo (CC-BY) Michael Fraley.

Three and two browsers /
H.264, VP8 /
Two sides can’t agree.

Video, playing… /
My Flash plugin slows, crashes. /
Circular debate

You could stop reading there, but by way of further explanation:

Have you noticed that debates over the future of Web video and the HTML5 tag seem to be unending? It’s because both sides are in an impasse, and both sides think it’s the other side’s fault. Both are right, in a way.

First, I want to thank readers for thoughtful, intense debate on this site. I think there’s an opportunity to reframe the discussion around actual content production and publication, and I hope that’s what we’ll do. Before moving to that, though, first is necessary to understand why everyone keeps banging heads, and that’s that there isn’t a solution that works for everyone.

Daring Fireball’s John Gruber, who has been the source I’ve seen quoted in blogs and mainstream press more than any other, has repeatedly declared that the choice of H.264 as the “practical” route, in contrast to the “idealistic” route. I think some of his points are actually well-reasoned and deserve to be answered, but he won’t stop needling some easy targets about them. He’s even resorted to name-calling, equating advocating free software with having a beard. Yeah, that’s right! F*** you, free software! You smell bad and have a neck beard! What have you done for us lately? (Okay, in fairness, I groaned when I got the FSF’s press release. It’s a bit like watching a Greenpeace Rainbow Warrior sail into the debate; even if they’re absolutely right, you know they’ll give PR ammunition to the other side.)

But “open video” advocacy, and I’ll include some of what I myself have written, hasn’t fared been much better. Just as H.264 advocates are arguing correctly for benefits of that format, open video advocates have easily-defensible points about the benefits of an open codec. But they simply can’t answer how that codec will become the standard delivery mechanism – not when you look at the big picture, from content creators to a wide variety of currently-fragmented devices.

In other words, I think advocates on both sides – that’s including me – are applying more wishful thinking to this discussion than logic. Let’s play out the two scenarios:

Why won’t everybody just play along and use WebM?

Non-starter, at least for now. WebM+VP8, as critics have rightfully pointed out, lacks a sufficient video production tool chain to be used by content producers without transcoding. Now, that much may change soon. Plug-ins for everything from QuickTime (and, by extension, iMovie and Final Cut) to free tools should provide easy output. And while you can’t find a camera that shoots VP8, a lot of editing requires transcoding, anyway. Browsers may “support H.264,” but not necessarily the whole spec. (Heck, half the cameras I’ve used that shoot H.264 usually find some way to screw it up that requires manual adjustment to their files.)

But that doesn’t matter; as with Theora before it, it’s the audience that counts, and that isn’t budging. Apple and Microsoft are unlikely to do native WebM+VP8 support any time soon. They will argue about VP8 what they argued about Theora: it could open them to patent liability, and it offers no significant benefit for them in terms of quality, compatibility, or usability – even if it weren’t a step backwards (which it probably is), it’s not a major step forwards, which is what would be necessary for them to adopt it.

The solution: plug-ins. There will be WebM browser plug-ins, but since Flash is rolling in support, Flash will remain the common denominator. That means Gruber has a point when he claims “In the name of “openness”, Opera, Mozilla, and now Chrome have chosen Flash.” That’s certainly not the intention of Opera, Mozilla, or Google, but it could be the upshot.

35% of readers of this site use Safari. 8% use IE. Loyal readers regularly read on iOS. Dropping support for these users is not an option.

So, there you go. Practicality. Logic. I mean, you’d practically need a neck beard to argue anything else. So…

Why won’t everybody just play along and use H.264?

Non-starter. There’s a reason H.264 in the video tag hasn’t already caught on: a critical mass of browsers doesn’t support it. Aside from people with “legacy” browser versions, it simply isn’t legally possible for open source browsers to incorporate H.264 decoding capabilities without running afoul of patent laws. This isn’t a murky issue, as it is with VP8: H.264 is based on a patent portfolio and license structure that is explicitly set out by the people who control the format.

Let me repeat that: Firefox, Chromium, and other open source browsers simply cannot ship H.264 support.

In fact, for everyone who keeps claiming that H.264 is the video standard, you’re right. But what use is that standard for the Internet if half your readers get left out? (And yes, this is what I mean when I say Google did Firefox an enormous standard – they’ve removed the idea that Firefox stands alone better than Opera can.)

The solution: plug-ins. There will be WebM H.264 browser plug-ins, but since Flash is rolling in already has support, Flash will remain is already the common denominator. That means Gruber has a point when he claims “In the name of “openness”, Opera, Mozilla, and now Chrome Apple and Microsoft have chosen Flash.” That’s certainly not the intention of Opera, Mozilla, or Google Apple or Microsoft, but it could be the upshot.

33% of readers of this site use Firefox. 19% use Chrome. Over 2% – a measurable 13,000 visits last month – are on Opera. Dropping support for these users is not an option.

Wait a minute … did anyone else just get a strong sense of deja vu?

Let’s review.

Both sides have a point. H.264 is a strong, mature format with excellent quality that has been ratified as a standard. But while it’s a standard, it’s not “open” in the definition many parties would consider – open standards in the context of the Web are generally assumed to be royalty free, and H.264 isn’t royalty free for either paid content or developers. WebM+VP8 isn’t a “standard” in that it hasn’t been ratified as such, but it is open and open source, which could result in new software innovation that would benefit creators.

Both sides require wishful thinking. So, what do you want – to give up Chrome and Firefox, or give up IE, Safari, and mobile Safari?

Both sides are saying odd things just because they’re angry at the other side. “Damnit, this is all part of an evil plot by Apple and Microsoft to crush freedom and make everyone buy iPhones and Windows.” “Damnit, this is all part of an evil plot by Google to take over my brain and run more ads. Or a really, really evil plot to make me use Flash.” Now, far be it from me to begrudge these three tech giants’ capacity for evil, but in this case, the arguments are lacking in one key element – evidence.

This is what a stalemate looks like. See haiku above.

So it’s your problem now. There are reasons to join Team H.264 or Team WebM. So, in the absence of a clear solution that works for everyone, I think the best thing that could happen would be for each side to work to prove their point to the other side.

Want H.264 everywhere on the Web? Then stop calling free software advocates bearded losers and start figuring out how they could adopt H.264 with the tools they want to use. (In a weird way, Microsoft did that by building an H.264 plug-in for Firefox, though it’s, naturally, Windows-only. Then again, that’s the way an engineer solves the problem, as opposed to a blogger – yep, me included. I’ll still go with the engineer.)

Want WebM everywhere on the Web? Then get to work. It’s especially easy there, as the tools are available free. I can see advantages to having open source decoders and containers, so I’ll look into what an actual workflow might be, and how anyone could get quality levels they don’t hate.

But, nice as it might have been just to have one format win out and not have to worry about it, that hasn’t happened and shows no signs of happening any time soon. So, unless you’re waiting for the Great Messiah of Video Codecs to come and solve this for you, I expect at this point the only way to make progress is to keep working on actually publishing videos, and try to find the best compromises for quality and compatibility you can. Or we could all go back to calling each other names. That’s more fun when you have food you can fling at each other. Us Webizens need to start meeting in a cafeteria.

  • http://noisepages.com/members/richardl/ Richard Lawler

    In contrast to the high-stakes VIDEO element codec poker, here's some amusing HTML5 fragmentation:

    W3C introduces a new logo for "HTML5".

    (It looks like something from the hood of a car, but that's just my opinion.)

    But apparently they didn't get the memo because at the same time the WHATWG announced that "HTML5" will henceforth just be known as "HTML".

    "…it made no sense for us to keep referring to it as merely a draft"

    Now I'm going to have to order new T-shirts!

  • Anon

    >Both are right, in a way.

    No. Sorry, nobody can ever have any credibility thinking open source should use patented technology. That just doesn't make any sense. That view is objectively stupid.

  • Anon

    >Both sides are saying odd things just because they’re angry at the other side. “Damnit, this is all part of an evil plot by Apple and Microsoft to crush freedom and make everyone buy iPhones and Windows.”

    That's an uninspired and juvenile mis-characterization. Apple and Microsoft are part of the MPEG-LA pool. They hold H.264 patents. While either may or may not be making a net profit on licensing right now, increased H.264 adoption increases their licensing fees, giving them a growing revenue stream for almost 2 decades to come. It's just mind-blowing to me that someone would treat "this company has a patent and wants to profit from it" as a conspiracy theory. You DO understand why companies register patents in the first place, don't you?

    Microsoft and Apple's motives in spreading their patented technology are quite cut and dry. It's also known that they interfered in the W3C standardization process to prevent any open codec from becoming a required part of their standard – a move to protect their own interests.

    Your simplification of the matter to "lol u mad bro?" is just frustratingly childish. Is it also a conspiracy theory to say that Microsoft was sued for anti-trust by the DOJ and LOST? Uh, no, that's a simple fact. Is it a conspiracy theory to say that they intentionally lied in that case about their tying of IE to Windows? No, that's the opinion of the JUDGE. Is it a conspriacy to say Apple was targeted for investigation for its own anti-trust probe by the FTC over the "you can't make iPhone apps with the Actionscript 3 or other languages" stunt? No, again, that's fact.

    Perhaps one day you'll be a bit more informed and provide analysis worth reading….Until that day, I hope people stop linking your articles on Twitter where I came from, because it's a waste of time. Utter mindless, teenage drivel.

  • Peter Kirn

    @Anon:I don't think you actually read what I wrote.

    You:"nobody can ever have any credibility thinking open source should use patented technology."

    What, you mean you're saying this?"it simply isn’t legally possible for open source browsers to incorporate H.264 decoding capabilities without running afoul of patent laws. This isn’t a murky issue, as it is with VP8: H.264 is based on a patent portfolio and license structure that is explicitly set out by the people who control the format.Let me repeat that: Firefox, Chromium, and other open source browsers simply cannot ship H.264 support."

    I'm not quite sure what you're arguing with since I say the same thing at some length in the article.

    As for your second comment, you're talking about issues that are very much tangential to the question of whether Microsoft or Apple back VP8, specifically. Microsoft would presumably have a vested interest in supporting their own technologies, like Silverlight, not H.264. Apple's investment in the H.264 patent portfolio is comparatively small; numerous analyses would suggest they're spending more money than they're making. Anyway, what are you debating, exactly?

    "It’s just mind-blowing to me that someone would treat “this company has a patent and wants to profit from it” as a conspiracy theory."

    Like I said, *I don't see a particular conspiracy theory here*.

  • http://www.skyron.org SkyRon™

    aaargh! (as the characters in Peanuts® used to say . . . )

    EVERYBODY needs to step back, read 'the art of war' and then proceed. May fortune shine on . . . some of you!

    (bonus Jeopardy® points for anyone who knows who I'm paraphrasing here . . . hint: check the Peter Ustinov filmography on IMDB .)

  • Juno

    There's another confusion keeps coming back as well – neither of these things are production formats. They are delivery formats and your master copy is not going to be either of them. You're also going to keep using MPEG2 on your DVD and Blu Rays, Windows Media on older PCs and Zuugyzit for Martian viewers when your film is re-issued in 2101. And likely you'll keep on making PAL and NTSC versions of everything.

    This is just a proxy war between fans of one empire or another – the Afghan war of video. It has nothing to do with creativity. If the conversation is about open source then let that be discussed directly. If it's Gruber being a Mac shill then talk about that.

  • guinea.pig

    @ juno

    i dont believe that this has something to do with production format rather than with browsers. Since apple and microsoft do not want to be compatible to firefox, google and "all these open software" things in any way. I believe that it has to do more with stopping users from using, or even getting the idea to use browsers wich have a lets say "ideological" connection with open source software.

    I mean lets face it,windows will only lose profits if everybody starts using openscource codes in videos.There are still not alot of videoprocessing softwares out on linux based systems partialy because patent issues. And again i must say that it is not the production of videos for commercial use wich are standardized, but more the codecs used widelyby a much bigger target group like users of youtube and vimeo and other sites alike

  • Peter Kirn

    @guinea.pig: I believe that's unlikely in the case of Apple. Apple does continue to contribute to open source on the project most relevant to this discussion, WebKit. Apple's browser team have been good citizens as far as committing code. And Apple, Google, and Mozilla have worked together to advance HTML5. It doesn't make the video issue any less contentious, but if Apple really wanted to sabotage Firefox, there are other ways they could do that, and I can't see any motive for them to want to do so.

    Apple makes money on computers and mobile devices. They don't rely on codec patents for a revenue stream. They can't; they use more than they license.

    Microsoft's motives – I have no idea. But if Microsoft wanted to use H.264 to kill Firefox, then making an H.264 plugin for Firefox for free didn't contribute to that evil plan.

    @Juno: Actually, yes, you're absolutely right – though that makes me wonder if there is a chance to use the WebM container with a production codec.

    It is about delivery, absolutely. Of course, I do think creative people care about delivery, and this would impact things like online video editors and the like, but yes, it's very important to separate the two issues.

    My point is that you can't look at the issue and "shill" for either the Mac or open source (can you be an open source shill?) without looking at the larger reality. In that larger reality, right now, neither side is going to just "win."

  • Juno

    Right – it's about the larger reality. It's an ideological proxy war, and when has a proxy war ever helped the country over which the battle has been fought? Ask Vietnam.

    Fundamental to the whole thing is the illusion that I have to choose sides. Why? Because I'll have to transcode? I will anyway. The fundamental issue here is an ILLUSION.

    Because YouTube has to choose? Let them. YouTube is a black box into which video goes and comes out the other end and so long as it's powerful 'there's an app for that'.

    Because other sites have to choose? No they don't! For a moment look at BandCamp who serve music as mp3, ogg, flac and could probably add Martian GlupDox format in an afternoon. Because I don't want to pay license fees? Better take all your video cameras back to the shop.

    The other great bullshit that goes around is about plug ins, which is a proxy war about the purity of the software maker's vision. Firefox lives on plug ins – Ad Block, No Script, Flash Got et al. Add a video plug in. There you go. It's not defiled!

  • http://sunset2sunrise.net jesse be

    Patent reform is in severe order, that seems to be free software's best next step.I see what google just did as effectively denying something that works well for a less open/efficient technology (Flash interpreting H.264).

    And that the players that actually matter, Mozilla and (most definitely) Google, can afford.  H.264 is a great standard, with incumbent hardware support, that lots of energy has been put into, that energy (programing, testing, standardizing, deploying) will be continual to keep it relevant… do we live in a capitalist society, where when we spend time working on something we expect to get paid for it?While I'm pretty sure I'd prefer society to bend way more towards socialism, I'd truly prefer it be a more relevant issue, there are plenty.

    re-localization of food suppliesclean energy for transportationactual net-neutrality

    If you look at Apple's stance on most things, WebKit being a great example, they are a huge fan of open-sourced products in general, but where it works it works  & where it don't it don't…

    Patents are held in these areas that seem virtually unavoidable, so either reform that system, or bend your rules if you can afford it… Mozilla can & trust me, they can bend the rules, it's about ideology, not legalese.

    Don't get me wrong, i'd love to see that happen, but it's a path, and we are far from that destination, in the meantime it'd be nice if they supported HTML/H.264 instead of HTML/Flash/H.264 for now, since that's what my computer and phone have a hardware decoder for. 

    As a little backpedal, i've tried to use both Firefox & Chrome again recently,  I was doing Safari without Flash & Chrome for websites where I ad to as well… and I can't help but notice both of them are like 4x slower than Safari in my personal experience, especially with Click2Flash installed.   But I go with the best experience & for me there is no denying that is Safari.

    It would be nice if websites (like this one) would serve me the native HTML before Flash, it's a little aggravating to not only have to uninstall flash completely, but then have to change my user agent fake out that i'm an iPad.   

    I'm a Mac with Safari.  Give me modern HTML!

    my 2¢

  • Peter Kirn

    Whoa, hang on… this website doesn't use Flash. The issue is embeds that are out of our control, hosted elsewhere, for videos – which is the crux of the whole problem. It could be the crux of the whole solution, too, but … not yet.

    I will say, if you do sign up for the HTML5 beta in YouTube using the latest Chrome, Firefox, or Safari, you *will* get embeds served to you as HTML5 video tag — provided the video is transcoded to the right format, which it seems it isn't always, and you do have to log into youtube first.

  • http://sunset2sunrise.net jesse be

    nice, I did sign up for that, but I probably wasn't signed into it.  hope to see some positive change, not just tumultuous decisions.  thanks for the careful analysis Sir Kirn.

  • humanbulk

    Let say this: Google whats his part of the cake and this is why they force to WebM saying is open source etc… but in other hand still including Flash. So something is hidden and not in the right direction.