If you have been following the latest tech news, you are probably aware that YouTube and Vimeo have launched HTML5 based video players. Their move to introduce HTML5 support garnered a lot of attention. YouTube even proclaimed that they are “very excited about HTML5 as an open standard and want to be part of moving HTML5 forward on the web”. However, the true story is somewhat different. YouTube’s HTML5 player is not as open as Google would have us believe.
Before understanding why the new HTML5 video player does not work in some browsers, let us try to understand why HTML5 video is a big deal in the first place. One of the major problems with online streaming videos has been the lack of standardization. Some videos require Windows Media Player, some require RealPlayer, some utilise Adobe Flash while others require QuickTime. In order to view these videos, you must first install the appropriate browser plug-ins. However, HTML5 attempts to clean up this clutter by introducing the <video> tag. The basic aim of WHAT (Web Hypertext Application Technology) working group was to free online videos from plug-in dependency by introducing native video playback. Unfortunately, due to lack of agreement between major browser vendors, the video codec itself was not standardized. Apple wanted to use H.264 video due to better compression ratio and support for hardware acceleration. However, Opera and Mozilla refused to accept H.264 since it is a proprietary codec.
This brings us to the current situation with YouTube and Vimeo. Both YouTube and Vimeo have decided to go with H.264, which is not supported by Opera and Firefox. Hence, although Opera and Firefox support HTML5 video playback, they are not compatible with the new YouTube player. The HTML5 player works only in Chrome, Safari and Internet Explorer with Chrome frame installed. So why is Opera and Mozilla opposing the H.264 codec, which is technically superior to the proposed Ogg Theora codec?
The answer to this question is not as simple as you may think. H.264 is a proprietary codec and implementing a H.264 decoder would cost the browser manufacturers approximately $5 million per year. On top of that, even content creators would be liable for loyalties starting. The problem is not just financial; it is also ideological. Mozilla Firefox is an Open Source product, which is modified and used by various downstream distributors. Including proprietary code within the product will prevent these distributors from implementing a fully functional version of Firefox.
YouTube’s decision to choose H.264 is both startling and puzzling. Chris DiBona of Google claimed that, “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.” However, this is nothing but FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt). Xiph found that the video produced by using Ogg Theora is comparable to the one produced by YouTube’s own H.264 video encoder. Ogg Theora was able to match both quality and size of the video outputted by YouTube’s encoder. Not only that, Ogg Theora clearly has a greater reach (mainly due to Firefox). DailyMotion was one of the early adopters of HTML5 and it has already demonstrated that Ogg Theora can be successfully used on a large scale.