Firefox to gain H.264 video support

Right now, Firefox is in a bit of an odd place when it comes to HTML5 video: it supports Ogg Theora and Google’s WebM codecs, but not H.264, unlike other major browsers—Internet Explorer, Chrome, and Safari. That’s about to change. In a recent blog post, Mozilla Foundation Chair Mitchell Baker writes the following:

Mozilla is on the cusp of changing our policy about our use of video codecs and making use of a format known as “H.264.” 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.

Baker points to another blog post, this time by Mozilla CTO Brendan Eich, that details the reasoning behind the change. In a nutshell, Eich says Firefox needs H.264 if it’s going to succeed in the mobile space. He also emphasizes that Firefox will remain free and that Mozilla "will not burden [its] downstream source redistributors with royalty fees."

Open standards unencumbered by patents and licensing fees are great, no doubt about it, but I think Mozilla is doing the right thing here. Continuing not to support H.264 would just make things awkward for developers without really benefiting users. Now, hopefully, HTML5 video can begin to overtake Flash around the web.

Comments closed
    • derFunkenstein
    • 8 years ago

    Just based on what I can find about H.264 licensing, I don’t think Mozilla is paying anything either. MPEG-LA keeps saying they’ll never charge a royalty for internet video that’s free. That seems to say to me that as long as Firefox remains free there won’t be any royalties. Kind of a misleading blog post on their part.

      • Game_boy
      • 8 years ago

      That only applies to end users. I believe Firefox would still need to negotiate a license agreement, possibly paid, to cover all downstream distributors of their code (e.g. Linux distros’ builds of Firefox).

      And “never” isn’t the right word. They’ve made a promise until some time in the future, but they still retain the right to start charging.

        • Deanjo
        • 8 years ago

        [quote<]I believe Firefox would still need to negotiate a license agreement, possibly paid, to cover all downstream distributors of their code (e.g. Linux distros' builds of Firefox).[/quote<] Not quite. That would be the case if they wanted to integrate the decoder into FF so that it became part of the code base that provided playback without any outside codecs but as it is using an outside library it does not have to worry about this. It is the same as using the flash plugin for h264 playback. Flash's h264 codec had to be licensed not the browser. FF will simply use the h264 codec that is found on the system already to display h264 content.

    • Madman
    • 8 years ago

    It’s funny how it works out. Someone releases the proprietary format, people start using it, but it has all the licensing issues. Then a new, open source alternative gets released, but it need years to succeed, and every company is in a position where they can choose the better open source alternative and go out of business, or keep paying for nothing.

    GIF vs. PNG, mp3 vs. ogg, H.264 vs. WebM, and so on…

      • derFunkenstein
      • 8 years ago

      At this point there are no licensing fees for decoding H.264. Encoding, that’s a different story.

        • Madman
        • 8 years ago

        IIRC, there is a clause that you can use it for a period of x years or something. Or that H.264 holders can change the licensing type, or something like that.

          • derFunkenstein
          • 8 years ago

          [url<]http://www.mpegla.com/Lists/MPEG%20LA%20News%20List/Attachments/231/n-10-08-26.pdf[/url<]

            • BobbinThreadbare
            • 8 years ago

            “for Internet Video that is free to customers” seems like a rather important clause. That means they could charge for Hulu+, Youtube rentals, or Netflix.

            • derFunkenstein
            • 8 years ago

            I’m surprisingly OK with that.

        • Flatland_Spider
        • 8 years ago

        The first hit is always free; you gotta pay once you’re hooked.

        H.264 is patent and royalty encumbered, so it’s pretty much a ticking time bomb. The MPEGLA could squeeze a competitor it doesn’t like by for royalties or suing based on patents. They’ve already threatened Theora and VP8 with legal action.

        The only way forward is truly open standards that anyone can use and implement without worrying about when the first patent suit is going to hit.

      • Prospero424
      • 8 years ago

      Reply to Madman:

      Well, I think this is only a little different because while PNG was and is clearly superior to GIF and Ogg offers (by all objective criteria) superior performance to MP3, WebM really doesn’t offer any technical advantages over H.264 at all. It only exists in the marketplace to any measurable degree because it is royalty-free.

      I’m glad WebM exists, and I root for its success as an open-source, royalty-free alternative. But I’m glad Mozilla has seen the light in that it is no longer supporting it to the exclusion of competing formats. It just didn’t make any sense once it became obvious that the push for WebM wasn’t going to slow down (much less stop) the adoption of H.264.

        • Deanjo
        • 8 years ago

        [quote<]WebM really doesn't offer any technical advantages over H.264 at all.[/quote<] This is bang on. Honestly they aimed too low when they were creating WebM and should have been looking at establishing it as the "Next Gen" codec to go head to head with h265 but that is even too late to do now.

          • poulpy
          • 8 years ago

          Just because it’s getting a bit confusing:
          – WebM is the combo video (VP8) + audio (Vorbis) packaged in a Matroska container
          – H264 is a video compression standard

          It would certainly help adoption if VP8 was earth shattering but err I guess it’s not that easy to release an amazing “next gen” codec? Let alone one that wouldn’t blow today’s hardware specs for embedded decoders?
          Not much Google could have done anyways, they bought On2 and opened their existing VP8, since then, surely, they’ve been working on a VP9 to take on H265?

            • Deanjo
            • 8 years ago

            [quote<]since then, surely, they've been working on a VP9 to take on H265?[/quote<] I wouldn't count on that. They have pretty much left WebM development to a talented few. There hasn't been much movement on it in the development front. With h265 already establishing itself as the next industry standard Google is again, too little too late. In the end, I imagine Googles codec efforts will end up like many of their other projects and will be eventually discontinued. You are correct WebM is a container but it is usually put head to head with h264 directly as the WebM specification only allows for VP8 and Vorbis streams to be used, where as h264 can exist in a multitude of containers.

            • Prospero424
            • 8 years ago

            The other problem with iterating VP8 to compete with current and upcoming proprietary standards is that the MPEG LA license pool has pretty much become a monopoly on IP related to video codecs. Almost all of the technology having to do with compression methods and the like is part of that patent pool. So much (if not all) of what Google would need to implement in order to make it compete on quality would put it in violation of one or multiple patents. There are only so many ways to compress video, and most of them have already been patented.

            And that’s the real kicker: because everything has been poured into this patent pool, you pretty much cannot enter the video codec market at this point. You either play ball with MPEG LA or you try to write a competing codec from scratch and eventually get sued/fined out of existence.

            All Google can really do is use the IP they acquired from On2 as leverage to keep the MPEG LA from getting onerous with their terms; they can’t actually use it to advance video quality. It’s the same old mutually-assured-destruction game that’s made inevitable by our ridiculous software patents system. The market is one big Mexican standoff. So stupid.

      • Meadows
      • 8 years ago

      I did not realise you could make animated PNGs.

        • Madman
        • 8 years ago

        They have a derived MNG format that covers animation and lossy compression.

        • Malphas
        • 8 years ago

        I genuinely don’t know if that’s sarcasm or not, but it’s unsurprising you didn’t know either way. APNG is still quite recent and browser support is patchy.

        • Flatland_Spider
        • 8 years ago

        It’s cool, but Flash and javascript pretty much made it a technological dead end.

        Although animated Gifs have found a home as Art, so animated PNGs might have a life.

          • UberGerbil
          • 8 years ago

          Animated GIFs [url=http://www.sbnation.com/2012/1/4/2681641/shane-victorino-gif<]still have a niche[/url<].

      • Flatland_Spider
      • 8 years ago

      Having money to buy market share certainly helps. The market never starts out at open standards, it starts at closed standards then moves to open standards to counter one player’s domination of the niche.

      I guess what I’m saying is it’s politics not engineering that wins.

      • TakinYourPoints
      • 8 years ago

      How is WebM superior to h.264? It isn’t, it didn’t aim high enough, and that’s a problem. The important difference is that h.264 is on everything from Blu Ray players to web video to satellite and cable HD broadcasts. It is ubiquitous and has no disadvantages relative to WebM, so it makes sense that the open format that nobody is using is not going to catch on.

    • Game_boy
    • 8 years ago

    They will only be using the existing h.264 licensed codec on Vista/7/8 and Android, allowing it to play through the browser. Not licensing it for themselves. Thus this isn’t much of a position change.

    On platforms without a licensed h.264 codec (such as Windows XP), Firefox won’t provide one.

      • slaimus
      • 8 years ago

      So you’re saying Firefox has been preventing videos from being played back using the built-in system H.264 decoder all this time?

        • BobbinThreadbare
        • 8 years ago

        It was the default behavior of all browsers to come with codecs built into them. Firefox didn’t want to bundle a proprietary codec for obvious reasons. The solution they came up with is to pipe codecs installed on the system.

        I think it’s a very reasonable alternative, and it would have been nice if they just did it from the start, but it’s not like someone showed up with code to pipe the codecs through and Mozilla just ignored them.

      • jensend
      • 8 years ago

      Simply allowing all system codecs would be an awful throwback to the late 90s when sites relied on dozens of plugins, all of which had to be separately and manually installed and many of which were incompatible with each other or overrode each other.

      (Remember RealPlayer and all the associated ugliness? Did you ever have to mess around with things to make it so Real wasn’t trying to play QuickTime’s formats or vice versa?)

      After IE 5 became completely dominant and MS started installing Flash by default, people started using Flash for [i<]everything[/i<] even though its only real strength is its original purpose (vector animation). There were superior solutions out there for video and audio streams, but [i<]nobody used them[/i<] because relying on The One True Catholic (i.e. universal) Plugin was easier for both webmasters and users than worrying about plugin installation and setup. People want the Internet to "just work." That's a lot of the motivation for the <video> and <audio> html5 elements in the first place rather than using the old <object> and <embed>. If they could agree on standard codecs and those came with the browser, users and webmasters would only have to worry about which browser they were using. Unfortunately MS and Apple refuse to include WebM while Moz can't include formats whose patent licenses would disallow the distribution of open source derivatives, so we've been at a standstill, and Mozilla just caved in. To avoid the total compatibility nightmare allowing all system codecs by default would bring, they'll probably ship with a default codec whitelist. edit: just noticed four hours after the fact that this was a reply fail. Intended as reply to slaimus complaining about not playing videos with system codecs.

        • UberGerbil
        • 8 years ago

        That wasn’t the only reason Flash became dominant: it also enabled custom in-browser players that obfuscated their streams, providing a modicum of anti-piracy protection. Of course it was easily evaded by the tech-savvy, but from the content-providers’ standpoint it was a major improvement over the right-click-save-as situation that allowed even the very clueless to pirate with ease.

          • A_Pickle
          • 8 years ago

          That… that is [i<]the[/i<] reason Flash became dominant. It literally made the internet less useful. Thanks, RIAA/MPAA.

            • UberGerbil
            • 8 years ago

            Actually, if it had actually worked like they wanted they wouldn’t have needed the RIAA/MPAA

          • jensend
          • 8 years ago

          Good point. IIRC, QT and Real both tried to keep you from saving streams as well; it wasn’t generally so easy as right-click-to-save. But you could just look in the source for the target of the <embed> or <object> and save that, while a swf target file might not contain any of the actual media.

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