Editorial: When you use an image tag on a website, you don’t have to worry about whether it’ll be readable by all devices or whether some intellectual property lawyers could make it costly to use. Believe it or not, it wasn’t always that way, even with still images. Today, the problem is video. But tomorrow, that problem could be history, too – if we can only find an alternative to H.264.

The outlook for truly open video – for free tools and free codecs for creators – can sometimes seem bleak. But I think this year, some of those winds are shifting in direction.

The big catalyst for all of this could be (perhaps has to be) Google. The notion of Google as the good guys in open video is actually a new one. Supporters of the free OGG Theora video codec have been unnerved by Google’s use of H.264 on its YouTube HTML5 test. In its Chrome browser, Google supports both H.264 and Theora codecs for the HTML5 tag, which to me seems a good compromise but has fallen short of the “Theora or nothing!” tack taken by Mozilla Foundation with Firefox.

Google is Backing Theora, After All – Just Not Exclusively

But as more pieces emerge, it seems the sum total of Google’s choices are pragmatic. On the Theora front, Ars Technica’s Ryan Paul reports Google is supporting TheorARM, an implementation of the Theora codec optimized for the ARM architecture. That story goes into the details of why this is needed and why Google’s support makes such a difference.

…But Theora Isn’t Enough

Supporting Theora as an alternative seems a good thing, but that doesn’t address the gap in perceived playback quality between Theora and H.264. That’s not an easy problem to solve. It goes something like this:

H.264 is patent-encumbered, meaning it could suddenly incur a bunch of licensing fees and foul up publishers and software developers! We need an alternative. Theora is an alternative. But Theora doesn’t look as good, because it lacks some of the quality tricks found in H.264. Those tricks are patented, though. All of those tricks add up to a bunch of patents in H.264. H.264 is patent-encumbered, meaning it could suddenly…

You get the picture. (So to speak.) Worse, Theora doesn’t really have any big player going to bat for it legally. That means companies like Apple actually do have a point when they say they think Theora unnecessarily opens them to litigation. I pointed out some of the problems with the situation back in February:
HTML5 and a Brave, Flash-Free, Open World? Uh… Not So Fast

So, H.264 is a problematic choice, but Theora isn’t the solution for every situation, either. You need another alternative. It needs to be competitive on quality, it needs to be patent-free, and because patent law is such a tangled mess, it needs backing from a big player who can defend it in court. At the high end, one such alternative exists: the Dirac codec looks terrific, is serious enough for pros, and has been developed by, used at, and advocated by the BBC. But Dirac isn’t something you’re going to use to embed videos on your webpage.

So Google Could Offer an Alternative

Enter On2’s VP8. On2’s encoding technology have been found in Flash and (while its future seems uncertain these days) JavaFX. Now, we get word that Google is planning to open up the VP8 video codec, again covered by Ars’ Ryan Paul.

This is, of course, exactly what many of us have been hoping for. The dream scenario is exactly this: Google’s fast-growing browser and Web-leading video consumption side hedge their bets but keep a commitment to HTML5, Google supports Theora’s ongoing development, but Google buys up and then frees up an alternative video codec that levels the playing field and frees us from reliance on Flash as a video playback container or from potentially-crippling license fees with H.264.

Of course, it’s too soon to tell whether that’s actually what’s going to happen.

Just Give us a Choice

The surprise to me is that, in all of this, so much of a critical debate over the role of video in all online communications has been overshadowed by just one device, the iPad. It seems to me it’s time to look beyond that to what this is really about: choice.

As visualists and artists, we badly need an Internet on which we can distribute our work freely, and on which devices of all kinds – including those running free software – can access our media freely. Many of us aren’t just shooting video and exporting them, either; we see countless artists building their own tools. That means matters of licensing and tooling really do count. More abstractly, the ability to choose a tool is important.

The big issue I’ve had with the early days of the HTML5 video tag is something that isn’t Apple’s fault, and that’s the mistaken notion that somehow having an Internet-standard video tag is just something that matters for the iPad. Some sites, at least, let you opt-in, and as a result, I can get snappier, easier video playback on Google Chrome on my Linux machine than I can out of Flash. Others check to see if you’re using an iPad before delivering their “standards-based” site, confusing one device vendor (Apple) for the underlying standard.

But to me, there’s still no contrast clearer than the one currently evolving between Apple and Google. The question is, how do you effect change? Do you allow a variety of options and assume the best one will win, or try to force users into the option you’ve pre-determined is best?

Choice, or Enforced “Standards”?

Apple’s choice to block cross-platform developer frameworks and alternative languages from their iPad and iPhone platforms is one a whole lot of people don’t like. At the same time, it’s been tough to side with Adobe, because you find yourself in the position of defending Flash – whether or not it’s the appropriate tool for every job. But maybe that isn’t really the point.

Codecs are one issue, now caught up in this larger debate over development because the choice of Flash is seen as opposed to the choice of HTML5 video. But codecs to me are one sliver of a larger question. It’s the question of whether you’ll have the freedom to choose and use tools freely, and distribute creations, information, and software freely.

Apple’s recent PR statements sound a bit like someone running for political office. Here’s what they told CNET about Adobe’s public frustration with Apple blocking the use of cross-platform development tools on their iPad platform:

“Someone has it backwards–it is HTML5, CSS, JavaScript, and H.264 (all supported by the iPhone and iPad) that are open and standard, while Adobe’s Flash is closed and proprietary,” said spokeswoman Trudy Muller in a statement.

Oh…. really? I agree on HTML5, CSS, and JavaScript. But H.264 is only partially a standard, and it’s not open. H.264 was ratified as part of MPEG-4, but it’s not a standard part of the Web, it’s not part of HTML, and Apple themselves advocated against the inclusion of Theora as a standard in its place.

Moreover, Apple’s making an argument about what goes in their Web browser when the whole point is what’s in their OS. The fact that that OS is closed and proprietary To me, Apple’s statement tells only half the story. Google’s statement is more logically defensible.

Here’s what Android’s Andy Rubin, VP of Engineering at Google, had to say via Adobe’s blog:

Google believes that developers should have their choice of tools and technologies to create applications. By supporting Adobe AIR on Android we hope that millions of creative designers and developers will be able to express themselves more freely when they create applications for Android devices. More broadly, AIR will foster rapid and continuous innovation across the mobile ecosystem. Google is happy to be partnering with Adobe to bring the full Web, great applications, and developer choice to the Android platform.

That to me sums up what I would hope would happen here. Blocking Flash may not be the way to promote open standards for the Web. (It certainly isn’t if you can’t also provide an open codec.) The best course would be the one Google seems to be taking, which is to hedge your bets, provide some choices, and let the best solution win – so long as you ensure that one of those choices is a free and open one.

I’m not convinced Adobe is entirely an advocate of free and open standards; Apple is right there – the Flash Player remains proprietary, if newly license fee-free. But Apple isn’t exactly an advocate of these standards, either.

Our best bet at this point may be that Google, by virtue of its massive investment in online content and advertising, sees the benefit to themselves of pushing open standards and codecs. That could change the landscape overnight, and make free video really work.

Don’t think that’s important? Ask someone to tell you the story of GIF.