Microsoft’s blog posting on this matter is almost as frank as Steve Jobs’ open letter of yesterday. Noting that there’s been “a lot of talk” about this on the Web, MS is taking the chance to “talk about” its point of view, which is this: “The future of the Web is HTML5 […] In its HTML5 support, IE9 will support playback of H.264 video only.” That’s the boiled down summary, but it’s essentially the important part of this news: In its next version tweak to adopt HTML5 coding standards in IE, MS will support in-browser playback of only those videos encoded in MPEG LA’s H.264 video format.
For those of you who’re scratching your heads, H.264 is just another way of “wrapping” video data so that it can be accessed and played in browsers (or dedicated media players, for that matter) much like Flash videos work currently. It’s a freely accessible format that’s currently license-free and Apple’s been promoting it for ages, partly through in-built H.264 support inside iTunes. Unlike Flash, though, H.264 can be supported directly in the browser code itself, meaning it doesn’t need a proprietary plug-in like Flash does, which has important implications for the future of open Web standards, and possibly security and reliability too.
MS actually mentions all of this in the posting, even going so far as to echo Steve Job’s sentiments about Flash: “Flash does have some issues, particularly around reliability, security, and performance.” That’ll stir up some righteous anger among Flash proponents (and it’s one in the eye for Adobe itself, who yesterday intimated that if there’s performance issues with Flash on Macs, then it’s likely to do with the OS itself). MS doesn’t quite slam the door on Adobe, though, noting that it still will “work closely with Adobe” and that Flash remains an “important” way of delivering content to today’s Web users. Just maybe not tomorrow’s ones…
Because this move by MS is surprisingly bold. H.264 is a freely accessible standard, just not an entirely open one (there are some questions about whether its owners MPEG LA will require licensing fees to use it to encode video from 2016 onwards) and it’s not the only one out there: Opera and Firefox promote the OGG video standard, which MS implies has even more confusing rights situations surrounding its use. Some commenters have already expressed outrage that MS is “forcing” a Web standard on its users, and that this standard is H.264 in particular–at the expense of supporting any other video standards in-browser.
The battle about Web video slightly echoes some of the early debates about which graphics code standard to support for Web pages (JPEG, TIFF, PNG and so on.) The main difference being that the Web was in its infancy then, and the entire world wasn’t using it for fun and professional purposes at the time. Things are different now, and since some are promoting video as the real driver for next-gen Web paradigms (particularly when combined with some sort of social networking and live user video up-linking) the issue is very important indeed. Yet with big players like Apple, Google and now MS weighing in on the side of H.264 in HTML5, it looks like many of the big decisions have already been made. And you know what? As a typical Web user, you’ll probably never notice the impact of this kerfuffle: Except that soon your browser may be a bit more stable when playing video, and you may see fewer requests to “update your Flash plug-in.”
Update: A different perspective on the matter has popped up at Hugo’s blog. Expanding on a few things we mentioned yesterday, Hugo notes that this entire debate has an extra, hidden, complication. Namely, that H.264 isn’t a full “open” standard at all. In fact, the full shake-down on how its licensing will kick in in 2015 hasn’t happened yet, and as recently as February, H.264’s “owners,” Mpeg LA, were trying to clarify whether or not users of web video would have to enter into a EULA with the company, or whether vendors who sell movie encoding software would have to pay royalties. Hugo proposes Ogg as a viable H.264 alternative (a little late, given the bold choice MS has made).