Yesterday at MIX Dean (general manager of the IE team) announced the availability of the first IE9 Platform Preview for developers. Dean also committed to updating the preview approximately every eight weeks. There is a good article on Beta News covering some of the technical details of the release. A key part of the announcements was the support for hardware accelerated HTML5 including supporting the video tag with the H.264 codec.
What I’m going to write next is based on a number of years of observations and some deep conversations that I’ve had with some very engaging and switched on individuals. Most recently at Kiwi Foo Camp last month Robert O'Callahan (Mozilla), Glen Murphy (Chrome), David Recordon (Facebook) and I ran a session and participated in conversations that discussed the background and history of HTML5 video.
After the event Robert O'Callahan wrote on his blog:
Foo Camp (NZ) was, once again, fantastic.
One of the most fun parts for me was a long conversation with Nigel Parker (Microsoft) and Glen Murphy (Chrome). During that conversation I realized that this is the first time ever that the consumer software industry has had three powerful, yet similarly matched, competitors --- Google, Microsoft, and Apple --- fighting over some important platform turf (mobile, online content, browsers). That's really wonderful. Although it'd probably be more fun to watch if we, Mozilla, weren't in the ring with them.
The deeper conversations continued the following week at the Webstock conference in Wellington where Chris Shiflett (NY) convinced me to write this blog post highlighting the main points.
What follows is solely my opinion as I attempt to reconstruct a timeline of events as I see them related to H.264 video and how it has become the “industry standard”.
Three years ago around the time when Silverlight 1 was released I started to become very familiar with video broadcast on the web and the challenges and opportunities that it creates. At the time I learnt about codecs, media containers, progressive download, adaptive streaming, content protection, web playlists, multicast, scaling and bit rate throttling.
One thing that became clear to me is that most people don’t care about what codec their video is encoded in as long as it loads quickly and looks good on their TV, Computer Screen or Device.
Around three years ago the industry started to change and video content began to move from “standard” to “high” definition via a number of different channels.
At the time I delivered a presentation on the convergence of web technologies and coined the phrase
Software Convergence, is not the reduction of solutions but the expansion of presentation & information to user combinations.
Also at the time a few different codecs emerged that were efficient at compressing HD content while still delivering a high quality stream.
One of these codecs was H.264/MPEG-4 AVC. Microsoft didn’t support H.264 natively in any products at the time. You may be familiar with H.264 as the codec that commonly appears inside a mp4 or mov media container. AVC stands for Advanced Video Coding as is in part driven by Apple with 26 companies in the AVC Patent Portfolio License including Microsoft.
At the time Microsoft supported a different compressed HD codec VC-1 (released as a formal SMPTE standard video format on April 3, 2006 there are 18 companies in the VC-1 Patent Portfolio License including Microsoft). VC-1 is essentially the evolution and standardization of the wmv (Windows Media Video) format.
Back in 2007 there was a very small amount of HD content on the web and web video was generally low quality short run content.
Around the same time there was a battle taking place between Blu-ray (backed by Sony and Philips) and HD DVD (backed by Toshiba and Hitachi) .
Both Blu-ray and HD DVD supported the VC-1 codec as well as H.264
In Sep 2005 Microsoft (and Intel) chose to back the less popular HD DVD format over Blu-ray
After looking at the core advantages to the PC ecosystem and how it would benefit the consumer, it is clear that HD DVD offers the highest quality, and is the most affordable and highly flexible solution available.
Blair Westlake, corporate vice president of the Media/Entertainment & Technology Convergence Group at Microsoft, September 2005
On the 19th Feb 2008,
Toshiba made a statement saying,
it will no longer develop, manufacture and market HD DVD players and recorders.
Blu-ray won! So what? you may be thinking… well to me this is another example (like vhs/beta before it) where consumer choice dictated support for a single format.
We see this much more often (and it makes more sense) in relation to physical goods – DVD’s, Video cassettes, media cables (USB/ HDMI etc). Companies make money by owning and licensing the manufacturing pipeline (think iPod dock, Sony memory cards) and consumers benefit from industry standardization (think USB, 3.5mm headphone jack) on a single hardware standard.
The interesting part of this model IMO is what happens when this plays out with a digital file format to deliver premium video content online.
iPod + iTunes changed the game in relation to the merging of hardware and software into a broad consumer adoption market. Initially the devices/ marketplace focused on audio (mp3 was the most widely adopted audio format thus making it the “industry standard” for music – despite a strong alternative on Windows with wma).
On October 12, 2005, Apple introduced iTunes 6.0, which added support for purchasing and viewing of video content from the iTunes Music Store.
This is when I think the game started to change
- On April 9th 2007, Xbox 360 added support for H.264
- On August 20 2007, Flash Player 9 Update 3 Beta 2 added support for H.264 (IMO partly in response to the HD VC-1 support in Silverlight 1 that was available at the time).
- March 2008, New Zealand's Freeview service launched its DVB-T transmissions using H.264/AVC
- March 2008, YouTube started testing Flash with H.264 to deliver HD 720p videos.
- September 2008, Announcement regarding adding H.264 support to Silverlight 3
- October 2008, H.264 support was added to Windows 7
- November 12, 2008, the Flip Mino HD released outputting video to the H.264 (.mp4) format
- September 2008, Canon EOS 5D Mark II Digital SLR shoots full HD video in .MOV format using an MPEG-4 video compression
- December 2008, Facebook added HD video with Flash H.264
- March 2009, Safari 4 adds HTML video support for H.264
- June 17, 2009, Safari/ WebKit on iPhone 3.0 adds support for HTML5 video QuickTime MOV Files including H.264 (pdf)
- Oct 12, 2009, Google Chrome 3 released with HTML 5 video support for H.264
- Jan 20, 2010, YouTube introduced HTML5 video as H.264 mp4
- Mar 17, 2010, IE9 announces support for HTML5 Video with H.264
All of this combined is the reason we can (with some confidence) conclude that H.264 is the “industry standard” for video.
Robert O'Callahan and Christopher Blizzard at Mozilla have the view that this isn’t right and that a open royalty free video codec is needed for the web.
- Jan 23 2010 – Robert O’Callahan - Video, Freedom And Mozilla
- Jan 24 2010 - Christopher Blizzard - HTML5 video and H.264 – what history tells us and why we’re standing with the web
It is also interesting to read Joshua Allen’s opinion piece HTML5 Video: You'll Shoot Your Eye Out! as he comments on Christopher’s post above.
What do you think?
Is the game already over? Especially now that IE9 has announced H.264 support for HTML5 video.
Do you care?
There is another interesting piece to this puzzle that happened on the 18th Feb 2010 when On2 Shareholders approved Google's acquisition offer.
On2 has HD codecs that are also used for the distribution of video on the web.
- Move Networks uses On2’s VP6/VP7 codec's in conjunction with it’s network technology and browser plug-in to deliver HD adaptive streaming to a range of high profile broadcast events.
- Hulu videos are streamed as Flash video files (FLV files). These files are encoded using the On2 Flash VP6 codec.
Dan Rayburn from streamingmedia gave his view on why he doesn’t think it is a big deal, but that still remains to be seen.
It will be very interesting to watch what Google chooses to do with the On2 codec especially in relation to YouTube, Chrome and HTML5 video support.
I will be watching this one very closely as it unfolds.
- Mar 30, 2010, Flash Player To Come Bundled With Google Chrome
- May 19, 2010, Flash Player 10.1 on Google TV
- May 19, 2010, WebM announced leveraging VP8 and Theora video codecs with support from Chrome, FireFox and Opera
- Jan 11, 2011, Google removes H.264 Video Codec Support from Chrome
From this comment - "Though H.264 plays an important role in video, as our goal is to enable open innovation, support for the codec will be removed and our resources directed towards completely open codec technologies.
These changes will occur in the next couple months but we are announcing them now to give content publishers and developers using HTML <video> an opportunity to make any necessary changes to their sites."
Reading between the lines I suspect YouTube supporting H.264 for HD content will now be short lived.