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

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.

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.


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.

Comments (4)
  1. Speednet says:

    Nicely-researched article.

    One point on the HD-DVD vs. Blu-Ray battle:  It was not decided by the consumers, it was decided by Warner Brothers.

    Consumers were making HD-DVD quite popular at the time, due to HD-DVD’s lower cost, superior features, and dual-format discs.  Developers enjoyed the HD-DVD format far more than Blu-Ray, due to the much easier and more efficient DHTML development platform.  Blu-Ray uses a prickly Java-based environment, with a smaller pool of knowledgable coders and a more challenging platform to master.

    After Warner Brothers finished engorging itself in Christmas sales for HD-DVDs in 2007, they pulled the rug out from beneath the HD-DVD format (and its supporters).  That single move sunk the format, and Toshiba’s annoucement happened just weeks later.

  2. Craig Humphrey says:

    Great article Nigel, though it might have been good to include the Ogg Theora stages in the timeline…

    Personally, like you’ve mentioned about most people, I don’t particularly care what the streaming/downloaded video codec/format is, as long as I can play it back and it looks great.

    If licencing must be a part of the video world, why not have a model that allows free licencing for clients, but paid (or cross-license, or "join the patent-pool", or something similar) for content creators.  That way, regardless of what codec/container is used by creators, odds are that your client will play it back.

    Content creators who need a cheap (or free) codec, can use one. Content creators who need a pay/supported/licenced codec, can use one.  Client browser/player developers can impliment (or use standard public libraries) any of the codecs (and it’s probably in their best interest to impliment a range) without fear of licence/patent issues.

    Just my 2c.



  3. Steven says:

    H.264 feels like the classic bait and switch licensing deal we saw with GIF and MP3 again.  Fool me thrice?

    We’re just using the JW Player (Flash based) at the moment for our stuff but I’ve been looking at making use of the video tags, if supported.

    It gets a  silly, for your standard standard youtube style progressive download/buffered video playback you basically have to do browser/plugin detection then fallback to whatever the user has support for based on this kind of priority:

    1:  HTML5 – MP4/H.264

    2:  HTML5 – Theora/OGV

    3:  Flash 9.x+ – MP4/H.264, Silverlight 3.x+ – MP4/H.264

    4:  Java – MP4/H.264 (there decent java players, java has a high install % too, ~90-95%)

    5:  Old Flash FLV/VP6, Old Silverlight WMV/VC-1 or WM9

    6:  Nothing (tell them to install something/upgrade browser)

    There are some nice solutions like this (but eww GPL):

  4. nparker says:

    Thanks @Steven!

    I agree that a true quality RF format w/ broad tooling and web adoption is the best outcome but it isn’t really a reality right now.

    In Feb 2010, MPEG LA chose to keep H.264 royalty-free for another 5 years, in essence buying time for the industry to look at alternatives if they are smart rather than getting "more and more baited" as you put it.

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