Mozilla executives working for the foundation behind the Firefox web browser today announced that they would be giving in to the H.264 codec as the open WebM VP8 codec has lost the war. The H.264 and VP8 (part of WebM) codecs are used to encode and decode video files, and are especially important on mobile devices as Flash support is less ubiquitous (or totally absent if you’re using Apple products). In the absense of flash, the web turned to the HTML5 standard which provides <code><video></code> tags that allow direct embedding of videos into websites. Also important is that H.264 has wide support for being hardware accelerated on many mobile devices, enabling smart phones to smoothly playback high quality files that the low power CPU portion of ARM SoCs would otherwise struggle with. This situation is also available to desktop users, but is less of an issue as processing power is not as scarce and can, ah, accommodate Adobe’s Flash plugin (heh).
The downside, and where all the controversy arises from, is that the H.264 codec is not free and requires manufacturers or sites that stream H.264 videos for a fee to license it as well as users, though the actual cost for licensing is generally rolled into the cost of the OS, device, or other piece of purchased software. Further, because the HTML5 standard does not specifically define a set video codec, there is room for fragmentation. Adobe, Mozilla, and Google eventually would jump behind what is now known as the WebM standard, which is an open (and free) video codec (VP8) that would not require expensive licensing restrictions. On the other hand, Apple backed the H.264 standard. Mozilla would roll WebM into their browser but not H.264, meaning that users could view HTML5 videos using Firefox but not HTML5 videos encoded with the H.264 codec. Google, Apple, and Microsoft would support the H.264 codec for HTML5 videos, despite Google developing WebM (and the included VP8 video codec) and giving word of mouth support for WebM. This meant that Chrome users could view both WebM and H.264 based HTML5 video.
According to the article, Google promised to drop support for H.264 and move solely to the WebM VP8 codec to entice websites to move to the open codec. Unfortunately, the company never came through with that promise, and has continued to offer dual support while Mozilla was left holding the open source support banner and causing their users to suffer as a result. The article references a study by MeFeedia that suggests that as of December 2011, H.264 based HTML5 video accounts for 80% of the market, implying that WebM has already lost the war. Brendan Eich, Mozilla’s Chief Technology Officer noted that WebM needed support from a larger entity than Mozilla, and it needed that support in the beginning. Especially with Apple heralding H.264, for mobile site publishers, WebM really needed heavy backing to compete with Apple’s market share and influential support of H.264 to have a chance. He further stated that:
"it might not have worked then, even with Google on-side. Now, with just Mozilla going it alone, all we do is kill our mobile initiatives in order to appear pure…That does not serve our mission or users."
Mozilla is now looking to support H.264, if a bit grudgingly. At this point, not supporting H.264 is only hurting their users and market share and not furthering their push for WebM. After all, if users are forced to look at other browsers just to play videos, it will not be WebM that is the only open source software forgotten (rather, the entire Mozilla web browser will wain).
Granted, Google is not the only company to blame for VP8 not catching on, Adobe also failed to properly push the codec. Also, Google is allegedly continuing to develop VP8 and WebM. Right now; however, losing Mozilla’s support seems to be the final nail in the WebM coffin and the recognition that H.264 is the dominant format. More information is available here.