Is H.264 Video Dangerous for Our Future Heritage?

The fuss about Flash on the iPad has now expanded to a serious discussion about Web video standards.

web video h264

The fuss about Flash on the iPad has now expanded to a serious discussion about Web video standards. Steve Jobsmissive about H.264 even garnered support from Microsoft. But the debate has spun on, and it’s getting complicated.


Microsoft responds to its critics

The brief but strongly worded Microsoft blog posting revealing it would only support H.264 video codecs natively in Internet Explorer 9 brewed up a storm of response on the Web. So much of it was negative, it turned out, that MS was stirred to respond to the criticism. Well, IE’s General Manager Dean Hachamovitch was stirred, anyway.

Hachamovitch’s argument rests on two important facts: H.264 is excellent, and it’s gaining rapid momentum. In fact, MS thinks H.264 is so fabulous that it’s “the best available video codec today for HTML5 for our customers. Relative to alternatives, H.264 maintains strong hardware support in PCs and mobile devices as well as a breadth of implementation in consumer electronics devices around the world.” There’s mention of “excellent” video quality too. And you can bet this is a matter MS’s coders have spent a long time examining. And as for the codec’s momentum in the marketplace, Hachamovitch notes that a recent survey shows some 66% of Web videos are already in H.264 format, which is a massive jump from last year’s figure of 31%. This is a statistic that demonstrates H.264 is very rapidly penetrating the marketplace, and it’s a serious slap in the face for Adobe, who’s been banging the “Flash is the heart of Web video” drum very loudly. Well, maybe it is if you’re talking about pornography, Adobe.

Our future cultural heritage is at risk from H.264’s owners

This opinion is a different tack on the complex licensing issues surrounding the H.264 codec. Eugenie Loli-Queru at OS News is arguing that if H.264’s owners MPEG-LA choose to throw the licensing switch in the future, they may be placing the exabytes of video data on the Web (which is a living record of our developing cultures, much as the Egyptian’s wall-writings were) at risk. As Eugenia points out, a far greater percentage of modern video recording equipment at consumer and professional level is already set up to record in H.264 format than you may think. And this is a problem, because the unusually broad EULA forced upon users by MPEG-LA seems to forbid professional use of the resulting video–which may even result in limiting whether you can embed it on Web sites that earn income from ad placements (something Google’s lawyers will be pouring over, you can bet.)

MPEG-LA has recently changed its plans for H.264, and won’t be placing fees on its usage until 2015. But that date may be something of a Damoclean sword for the digital video industry, if it turns out that MPEG-LA chooses to charge a broader swath of users than you may imagine to use its product (for example, you may think it acceptable to charge Sony to use the codec in its digital cameras…but not for you, the end user, to watch clips on YouTube). Is some sort of legal, or possibly even top-tier political intervention required? We don’t know yet, but you can bet this issue will keep resurfacing in the news


Adobe flies Flash’s flag, with free Android phones for staff

And there’s one final piece of news about Flash tech over the weekend (remember, that’s where this complex battle began). Adobe, in a fit of generosity–or perhaps a hissy fit of overly-proud stubbornness–is giving free Flash-capable Android phones to all its staff. This is a calculated PR maneuver, the political equivalent of a slap across Steve Jobs’ face, since Android is the most serious iPhone competitor platform.

And there you have it, the state of play neatly summed up. Will most end users of the Net care about all these shenanigans? Almost certainly not–remember that the huge majority of Web surfers care not a jot for magic tech that makes their computers tick: As long as they can easily and quickly dial into Lolcatz, they needn’t think twice if it’s Flash-based video or H.264. But if MPEG-LA starts playing fast and loose with its licensing rights, you can bet Jo Q. Public will get interested, and irate, damn fast. Sometime around 2015 would seem right…

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About the author

I'm covering the science/tech/generally-exciting-and-innovative beat for Fast Company. Follow me on Twitter, or Google+ and you'll hear tons of interesting stuff, I promise. I've also got a PhD, and worked in such roles as professional scientist and theater technician...thankfully avoiding jobs like bodyguard and chicken shed-cleaner (bonus points if you get that reference!)