Web Video – Not so free

The battle for the future of web video has just heated up again. What started as a snub for Adobe’s Flash technology when Apple announced it would not support Flash on its Internet-connected devices, has now turned into a fierce battle for dominance in web multimedia.

The most recent salvo in the video wars comes from the MPEG-LA group, the rights-holder for the H.264 video format. The group has said that it will waive all royalty payments for using its technology in perpetuity. This is a step up from its previous offer to waive royalties until the end of 2015.

The H.264 video format is a heavily patented technology and the MPEG-LA group’s membership includes the likes of Apple and Microsoft, both of which are including support for the format in their respective Safari and Internet Explorer browsers.

However, while the in-perpetuity waiving of licence fees for using the H.264 format has been widely welcomed not everyone is happy. In particular open source advocates and the likes of the Mozilla Foundation have spoken out against the move.

The issue at stake is that while the H.264 format is free of licence fees it is not an open format. Its competitor, the VP8 and WebM format, is open source and backed by the likes of Google and the Mozilla Foundation. H.264 is, however, only royalty free for streaming video free to consumers.

The important word here is “free”. Services that charge for video streaming to end users will be liable for royalty fees. This would include the likes of Apple’s iTunes video services but, being an MPEG-LA member, means that Apple presumably doesn’t have to worry about these royalty fees. It does, however, put the squeeze on potential competitors that aren’t part of the consortium.

The H.264 licensing fees also apply to makers of software that encode and decode video streams. Given that the fees can run into the thousands of dollars to license H.264, most open source projects (and many cost-conscious proprietary projects) will no doubt choose to develop with the WebM format rather than H.264, technical considerations aside.

Mozilla, in the meantime, the makers of the Firefox browser, are betting everything on the WebM format as the multimedia way of the future. Mostly this is because it is a fully free format: open source as opposed to simply no-cost. The problem for WebM, however, is that it is not well supported on mobile phones yet, and may never be, because it is a lot harder to do than H.264. And mobile is a significant part of the future web.

The other problem for WebM is that there is uncertainty around software patents in this arena. Already Apple has suggested litigation around supposed patents held by the MPEG-LA. This could well scare off a lot of potential users and developers who will be afraid of being hauled into court.

With no resolution in sight it will no doubt drag on for years to come, at least until a new format enters the scene and renders the incumbents redundant.

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Web Video – Not so free