Unless you’ve been hiding under an XHTML2 shaped rock for the past week or so, you’ll know that both YouTube and Vimeo have announced plans to support the HTML5 video element. Two blog posts published last week announced that the two major players in online video are experimenting with the HTML5
Will it work cross browser?
The videos will work natively in Safari and Chrome (well, YouTube would certainly have to, wouldn’t it?). They’ll also work in IE if you have ChromeFrame installed (which we all know is cheating). If you’re using a browser that doesn’t support HTML5 video it will default back to the Flash method they currently employ.
Both YouTube and Vimeo use the H.264 codec to encode the videos — and that’s where things start to get complicated.
Since no official codec is defined in the spec browser manufacturers have chosen to use different codecs to render HTML5 video. Opera and Mozilla use the Ogg Theora codec (more on that later), while Apple and Google use H.264. Who knows which side of the fence Microsoft will come down on, but I feel duty bound to mention that the licensors of the H.264 codec include both Microsoft and Apple.
The elephant in the room
There’s one major problem here: Ogg Theora, the open source video codec supported by both Firefox and Opera, is not supported on either site. It’s a shame these browsers aren’t supported, especially since Firefox 3.6 was released last week and announced support for full-screen video in its native video player.
Why use Ogg?
As previously stated, Ogg is an open source codec, meaning it’s free to use and implement. By contrast, support for native H.264 decoding in a browser costs approximately $5 million per year. (See summary of AVC/H.264 license terms [PDF].) It also seems that people creating H.264 content will be liable for royalties starting in 2011.
Far be it from me to get into the ins and outs of the debate over which codec to use, but it seems that open source would be the better way to go. Silivia Pfeiffer (a contractor for Mozilla) claims that serving as Ogg Theora will reach more people than serving as H264.
Google, on the other hand, which owns YouTube has said that Theora is not a good enough codec, claiming “If [youtube] were to switch to theora and maintain even a semblance of the current youtube quality it would take up most available bandwidth across the Internet”, a claim hotly (and convincingly) contested in Greg Maxwell’s YouTube / Ogg/Theora comparison.
YouTube and Vimeo seem to have discounted Ogg. I’d love to find out if there are other plans to add support for Firefox and Opera.
Where does that leave us?
Ignoring the whole video codec debate, it leaves us in some ways back where we started — dealing with proprietary software or complicated licensing to create online content rather than using technologies that will allow us to have a truly open web.
With Apple, Google, Mozilla, and Opera not likely to budge on their respective codec choices for HTML5 video, we can only hope that the developers at market-leading sites like YouTube and Vimeo can implement cross-browser interoperable video just like Kroc Camen’s Video for Everybody. Judging by the aforementioned blog posts, both sites have more plans in the pipeline, which is encouraging.
The codec battles are only beginning, and we’re waiting to see which direction one big gun will point. Last year, Google (which owns YouTube) announced that is paying $104million for a company called On2 Technologies, “a leading creator of high-quality video compression technology” and which made the original VP3 codec which is the basis for Ogg Theora.
What are their plans? To release a “better” Theora-like codec into the community? We can only speculate.
Back to today. Although not perfect, these sites’ support for the
<video> element is still a massive leap forward for HTML5. Who knows — if more large sites continue to adopt HTML5, maybe it’ll be ready in 2010 rather than 2022!