Flash's departure clears way for format stand-off

HTML5 standard embraced, but codecs still a point of contention.

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With the announcement that the Windows 8 Metro UI's browser would be plug-in (and therefore Flash) free, a major milestone on the road to HTML5 adoption was reached. But we're still not out of the woods yet.

Apple was the first major operating system company to really start the trip down this road, with Steve Job's insistence that iOS, the core OS for the iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad product lines, would no longer support Abobe's Flash, citing instability and battery life concerns.

Instead, Apple went with HTML5-based protocols for video and dynamic content. This week, we saw Microsoft joining suit, also promoting HTML5 standards.

At this point, advocates of software freedom should be happy that finally the major software makers are getting on board with the idea of standards for development and content delivery.

Except, unfortunately, that's not what's happening at all.

While it is true that HTML5 video is a step in the right direction, we also have to take into consideration the underlying codecs used to deliver the video content. Therein lies a tale, and possibly another kind of proprietary video fight, complete with potential litigation and threats of patent infringement.

Here's the problem: while Microsoft and Apple's browsers will be supporting the <video> tag to view content, they are only supporting the H.264 video codec by default. H.264 is a proprietary format with patents controlled by a consortium of companies known as the MPEG Licensing Authority (MPEG LA). To get H.264 support in your software (whether a browser or video editing tool), you have to pay MPEG LA a licensing fee.

As Ed Bott from ZDNet reported this spring, this is not currently an exorbitant fee (in fact the most royalty a licensee would have to pay would be $6.5 million/year through 2015). Even better, the MPEG LA has said it won't collect royalties for video players (including browsers) until the beginning of 2016, so only software that encodes, decodes, or streams video is affected by these royalty fees.

But Google (even though it's still listed as a licensee of H.264, right alongside Apple and Microsoft) has opted to avoid the 2016 problem altogether and support only the WebM (VP8) and Ogg Theora codecs, dropping support for H.264. Mozilla has opted for the same codecs for its Firefox browser.

Ogg Theora is an entirely patent-free codec, while WebM does have patents attached to it, but has a free license that grants users perpetual use of the codec without worry from patents.

Most of this is a history lesson, and not unexpected. Microsoft has already thrown support behind H.264 before with Internet Explorer 9, but with the official "all-in," no plug-ins announcement from Microsoft this week, I have concerns that we are getting set up for a video codec war.

Jobs already hinted at it back in 2010 soon after he dropped the no-Flash-in-iOS bombshell, in an e-mail reply to a complaint about using the patent-encumbered H.264 codec:

"All video codecs are covered by patents. A patent pool is being assembled to go after Theora and other 'open source' codecs now. Unfortunately, just because something is open source, it doesn't mean or guarantee that it doesn't infringe on others patents. An open standard is different from being royalty free or open source."

So, basically, if Ogg Theora content starts making a dent in Apple and Microsoft's bottom line, or that of the MPEG LA's, then expect to see a lawsuit or two headed Google's way after 2015.

That's a long ways away, granted, and anything can happen between then and now. But what seems to be the loss for Flash as a major content delivery format has just cleared the way for yet-another format fight that will last a long, long while.

Read more of Brian Proffitt's Open for Discussion blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Drop Brian a line or follow Brian on Twitter at @TheTechScribe. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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