Mozilla's Robert O'Callahan has had a great series of blogs (the comments are good too) over the last month:
Robert gave a talk at the recent Linux conference The importance of open video on the Web.
The money quote (his bolding):
Youtube and Vimeo have started offering video playback using the HTML5 <video> element. That is good news for free software, since it means you don't need a closed-source Flash player to play the video . However, they only offer video in H.264 format, and that is not good news for free software. A lot of people have noticed that Firefox doesn't support H.264, and apparently many people don't understand why, or know what the problems are with H.264. ...
The basic problem is simple: H.264 is encumbered by patents whose licensing is actively pursued by the MPEG-LA. If you distribute H.264 codecs in a jurisdiction where software patents are enforceable, and you haven't paid the MPEG-LA for a patent license, you are at risk of being sued.
(Christopher Blizzard has a good post on this too.)
Made me laugh, anyway
In Robert's blog he also mentions a talk by Samba's Jeremy Allison:
He made the point (which I think is too often overlooked) that which company one works for is almost always an individual moral choice and we should hold people accountable for it ...
I am not sure what "hold accountable" means. It is probably a euphemism for being nasty and self-righteous. Yes, this is just what the FOSS movement needs to get ahead: increased toxicity.
Allison is then reported:
Jeremy suggested that Microsoft will promote "RAND" standards --- standards covered by patents whose licenses would require a "Reasonable And Non-Discriminatory" fee, which sound good except that for free software, any non-zero fee is a show-stopper.
But, hold on, isn't that just what YouTube is actually doing by using H.264 for their codec? And doesn't Google actually own YouTube? And doesn't Jeremy Allison actually work for Google?
So according to his (reported) comment, shouldn't we be holding him accountable for working for a company which is actually doing what he condemns his pet enemy for being about to do in his dire prediction? I must be missing something...
Piddly hypocricy and party spirit aside, I do really agree with (what I take as) the thrust of what O'Callahan (and Allison too, probably) are on about.
For an Open Base
I think genuinely Open standards (especially with public or national interest) need to have at least one way to do each feature that allows FOSS development. Both free and open source must not be excluded.
And preferably that way should be available as a base-line with other FOSS-unfriendly formats and codecs available by negotiation: optional extras for extra quality or features. I support plurality and an Open base. (For an application of the same principle w.r.t. XML markup, see Safe Plurality, with a further wrinkle at Supporting Degradation.)
I understand that HTML5's <video> element is agnostic as far as video format or codec is concerned: that is normal good layering. But in the current environment, it looks like being a mistake for HTML5 to, in effect, enshrine single formats and codecs: it seems reasonable to expect that it will be the non-FOSS new media/advertising companies who will determine the winner. The YouTubes not the Microsofts.
I have written before about how important it is for corporations to have control of the API (for example, The Frog Race about the benefits of competitive standards rather than monocultures.) It is not a conspiracy, just something that requires counter-action.
IMHO, the reasons that Linux/Solaris/BSD has so far failed on the desktop are three:
- Microsoft's bundling strategies
- the concept of a Standard Operating Environment (and here), which frames procurement questions in a way that encourages concentration
- the relative lack of media and gaming capabilities, in particularly caused by MPEG licensing difficulties with FOSS
The message I get from Robert O'Callahan's blogs is that this third reason is in strong danger of being perpetuated, perversely by Google. I though they were supposed to be Microsoft's great enemy or something. (By the way, the same comment can be made about the second reason and IBM: by emphasizing the SOE, even if it is to sell Lotus Notes solutions, IBM paradoxically perpetuates a meme that helps maintain Window's market dominance.)
The only game in town
There is only one game in town at the moment where this could be addressed that I know of: the HTML5 effort.
It looks to me that HTML5 needs to have a better story on allowing adequate plurality for <video> that does not marginalize FOSS (and boutique) developers, especially smaller poorer ones, sole players and hobbyists. This is the danger of standards being made by groups dominated by corporate oligopolists: they give themselves the delusion that they can speak for their users when they really just speak for themselves.
But we must not have the situation where chunks of HTML get, in effect, proprietorized: if there is a video on a webpage, I should be able to view it even in low-fidelity, from my FOSS software. Video wants to be free.
[Readers: please discuss details of H.264 licensing elsewhere, such as O'Callahan's blog, since it is outside my expertise. But corrections to errors here are welcome of course, and discussion of the FOSS problem.]