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The HTML5 Codec Controversy


The fight began when the Web Hypertext Application Technology Working Group (WHATWG) was formed in mid-2004 by Web developers tired of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), with its bureaucratic inaction and the pull that commercial corporations have on it. The purpose of the WHATWG was to develop Web Applications 1.0, its own successor to HTML 4.01.

HTML 4.01 is the current generally accepted standard for Web markup taggage. It is the base on which XHTML 1.x was written — indeed, it is HTML 4.01 converted into XML format. HTML 4.01 is still perfectly usable, but it is more than ten years old (it became a W3C recommendation in 1999), and its way of adapting to modern Web technologies (like Flash, Ogg, and other multimedia formats) via the <object> tag is clunky at best.

Web Applications 1.0 proposed to expand on HTML 4.01 with its own specialized tags like <audio>, <video>, <canvas>, <section> and <article>. Old tags would be dropped, as would frames support.

This and other indicators (such as the emergence of microformats) of a growing loss of control over Web standards compelled the W3C to seek some sort of rapport with WHATWG. In May 2007, at the urging of Apple and Nokia, the W3G adopted HTML5 as the basis for the next Web tag language release.

Once HTML5 came into the hands of the W3C, the corporate pull began at once. The WHATWG wanted to use the Ogg codecs for the <audio> (Vorbis) and <video> (Theora). The corporations, especially Nokia and Apple, objected, claiming (without any evidence) that Ogg codecs are proprietary. Ogg codecs are under the BSD license and are not proprietary in any way. The contrary assertion by Nokia ignited an unending debate.

The WHATWG tried to stop the debate this year by declaring that HTML5 will be format neutral. That rose the tone of the debate to higher levels of rage. It also showed that the spine of the WHATWG was now broken. Mozilla declared that it would support Ogg codecs only for <audio> and <video>, and Opera claimed to plan for similar support. Google would support both Ogg and the proprietary H.264, for which it bought a general license for it from another vendor.

I having been watching this nonsense for a long time, writing the following series of entries in my work log on the debate.


22 May 2009

Yeah, it sounds old-fashioned, but my idea of a Web page is text and images. The whole point of a Web page, of a Web site, is to convey information, not to entertain. All sound and video do is turn a Web page into a commercial. I do not visit the Internet in order to watch commercials. If I want commercials, I would sit in front of a television set like a couch potato. If I wanted sound and video, I would pop an animé disk into my DVD player.

This is my reason for not using Flash, whether it was from Macromedia or it is from Adobe. And if, in the mysterious future, HTML5 ever becomes a W3C recommendation and is incorporated into Firefox and Opera, I may not use it at all. I will surely not use the <audio> or <video> elements in any page of mine.

I do not understand why <audio> or <video> were added, anyway. All they have done is to touch off angry arguments about what codecs to use, especially after Apple and Nokia made the W3C run away with its tail between its legs after it tried to support Ogg formats. Submarine patents, my ass! There has been long arguments about this on the WHATWG mailing list, one of whose proponents dismissed the FUD that Apple, Nokia and other big companies have been sowing about Ogg formats using 'doubts about hambergers on the moon' as an analogy.

Apple and Nokia seem to think that there *are* hamburgers in the moon, and that those hamburgers will cost them billions of dollars in submarine sandwich lawsuits.

This kind of asininity will ensure that if HTML5 becomes a standard, in some distant nebulous future, nobody will want to use it. It will not matter what new features are on it. People will grip hard to Flash and HTML 4.*/XHTML 1.*, and resist all change. Flash and HTML 4.*/XHTML 1.* are safe. XHTML 1.* is expandable in itself. Why will anyone need HTML5, especially when it will have too much baggage on it to be useful to them? And all those years of effort by WHATWG will be for nothing. This is the sort of crap that makes me wonder why did the WHATWG join up with the W3C in the first place.

2 June 2009

It will be years and years before [X]HTML5 ever becomes a recommendation of the W3C. But some of its components are available now. Among those components:

15 June 2009

This is a follow-up to a series of rants about the HTML5 <video> tag and the drive by the corporate simiularo to keep Ogg Theora from being its default codec. A Slashdot entry yesterday reports that Google is testing the tag on YouTube, but only with the proprietary H.264 codec beloved by Big Media.

Google (through one of its reps) claims that switching to Theora while maintaining quality would take up an incredible amount of bandwidth for a site like YouTube, though he made clear his support for the continued improvement of the project. Others have proven that this is not true.

I did not expect this to be. The Ogg formats were designed to the better of any proprietary audio and video format, while being liberaj programaroj. But that is the problem: Big Media is not going to just sit there and let formats that they do not control sweep the markets. That is why there is such a fight in the W3C HMTL5 project: It is evident that the kodumularo, especially those who are involve with the Ogg formats, are not going to take this prone. And the resulting fight is further soiling Google, whose growth into a wealthy commercial enterprise has turned it from a "do-no-evil" white to a rather ugly, dirty grey that is obvious even to the simiuloj in the popular press.

1 July 2009

It is official: All the bitching and moaning around the codecs behind the <audio> and <video> tags have forced the WHATWG, the HTML5 team at the World Wide Web Consortium, to abandon any hope of a codec for either tag. To wit:

After an inordinate amount of discussions, both in public and privately, on the situation regarding codecs for <video> and <audio> in HTML5, I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that there is no suitable codec that all vendors are willing to implement and ship.

It is not that the tags will not be in HTML5; it is that they will be undefined, the je particles of HTML5, as the tags <img> and <object> are now. And, you know, why do we need separate tags for audio and video when we already have an <object> tag?

This defeat for the constitutes a glorious victory for Apple and Nokia (by their hostility to the Ogg formats proposed), for Adobe (by its hostility to any threat to Flash) and for Microsoft (by its inaction). It is not so glorious for Google, which got burned (and will get burned even more) by using patented technology behind the <video> in its Chrome browser. It is nothing to Mozilla, which ignored the bitching altogether by incorporating Ogg formats in the <video> and <audio> in the new Firefox 3.5 browser. But the real loser is the WHATWG itself: Its intentions thwarted, its work tainted, and its chances of a universally acceptable HTML 5.0 standard ruined, perhaps for good.

11 August 2009

Microsoft has kept out of the format debate until the WHATWG was broken. Now Microsoft wants in, and is reviewing the HTML 5 draft to see what it can contribute. The responses on the Ars comment line is mostly You got to be kidding us! Actually, one of them gives three possible lines that Microsoft could follow.

  1. They support it
  2. They do not support it and HTML5 fails because the market leader does not work with it (Best case scenario for MS)
  3. They do not support it and HTML5 is so compelling that it is used widely and many users switch from IE to FF or Webkit browsers. (Worst case scenario for MS)

So in the end its a pretty interesting question what MS will do, of course they can try to to make a combination of procrastination and EEE (extend, embrace, extinguish) HTML5 which to be honest sounds like what they are planning.

Microsoft does not really need to do anything at all. The codecs debate has broken the WHATWG. Even if it were to get out a HTML5 recommendation, by that time different breeds of HTML5 (Mozilla, Opera, Webkit), each more or less incompatible, will be out on the Web. The WHATWG will have failed.

Microsoft has nothing to worry about here. Even without HTML5, Internet Explorer will always have the majority of users on the Web because it is the default browser on all Windows machines (even in Europe); and because the biggest users of the Web, the corporate manager and the businessman (being cowards and jellyfish) will use, and make their underlings use, nothing else.

12 January 2011

It has been a long time, and other issues with HTML5 have come and gone, but the codec issue popped up once more:

Google just made a bold move in the HTML5 video tag battle: even though H.264 is widely used and WebM is not, the search giant has announced it will drop support for the former in Chrome.

Evidently, despite the widespread support for H.264 (esp. by Apple), the technical and legal hassles associated with H.264 were not worth it. That puts Chromium/Chrome (with its Theora-based WebM codec) on par with Firefox and Opera (with the Xiph/Ogg Theora codec) as opposed to H.264 used by Internet Explorer and Apple's Webkit (Safari, iOS).

Compiled by Andy West on 12 January 2011.