Kicking the Can

I know you love it when I discuss video codecs. After all, what other subject could be more exhilarating?

Mozilla CTO Brendan Eich:

As I noted last year, one of the biggest challenges to open source software has been the patent status of video codecs. The most popular codec, H.264, is patent-encumbered and licensed by MPEG LA, under terms that prevent distributing it with open source products including Firefox. Cisco has announced today that they are going to release a gratis, high quality, open source H.264 implementation — along with gratis binary modules compiled from that source and hosted by Cisco for download. This move enables any open source project to incorporate Cisco’s H.264 module without paying MPEG LA license fees.

Pretty good solution, right? H.264 is, by far, the most popular video codec on the web, so it’s good that Firefox can finally play it in a way that’s largely in-line with their philosophy. They’re going to build it into Firefox, and any open source project can use the BSD-licensed version of H.264.

Free software proponent Monty Montgomery doesn’t see it as great news, though (ugly-ass LiveJournal warning):

Let’s state the obvious with respect to VP8 vs H.264: We lost, and we’re admitting defeat. Cisco is providing a path for orderly retreat that leaves supporters of an open web in a strong enough position to face the next battle, so we’re taking it. […]

Fully free and open codecs are in a better position today than before Google opened VP8 in 2010. Last year we completed standardization of Opus, our popular state-of-the-art audio codec (which also happens to be the best audio codec in the world at the moment). Now, Xiph.Org and Mozilla are building Daala, a next-generation solution for video.

In simpler terms, the decade-plus-long battle to have an open, free, and patent-less video codec on the web has, once again, failed. Therefore, the proponents of such measures are going to try again with a brand new and different codec.

At what point does someone realize that this is a fruitless endeavour?

H.264 is extremely popular, and compatible products (read: nearly every piece of video-playing gear or software released in the past five years) will be transitioned to HEVC, which significantly improves upon the compression/quality ratio of H.264, therefore being suitable for much higher-resolution video.

Meanwhile, there’s VP8 (otherwise known as WebM), which is used almost solely by Google. This succeeded Theora, of which the only major user is Wikipedia. Theora is old, and has a relatively poor quality-to-size ratio — this much was admitted when VP8 was released. VP8 still doesn’t compete with H.264 in terms of quality. Now, some in the open source community want to put both of these behind them as they develop a brand new codec, with the goal of beating HEVC and VP9.

I simply don’t see this endeavour being meaningfully more successful than past efforts to create an open source, free, and patent-less1 video codec for the web.

  1. The claims of Theora and WebM being unencumbered by patents are also suspicious↥︎