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Royalty-free H.264 may clear way for HTML5 standard

By Lex Friedman
August 26, 2010 04:53 PM ET

Macworld - MPEG LA, the firm that controls licensing for a number of video and other standards, announced on Thursday that it will never charge any royalties for Internet video encoded using the H.264 standard that Apple favors, as long as that video is free to end-users.

This is great news, even if it's wrapped in some technical language. When you watch video on your Mac (or your iPhone, iPad, or any other device), it's been encoded using one of many standards. Just as with popular audio formats like MP3 and AAC, video formats aim to find the sweet spot between video quality and file size--they want to get as high as they can on the former, and as low as they can on the latter.

Much of the video on the Web these days is presented via Adobe's Flash technology--for example, YouTube's standard, ubiquitous video player. As most iOS users know, Flash video doesn't work with iPhones and iPads. And even on your Mac, watching Flash video requires use of Adobe's Flash plug-in, which many Mac users (including famous ones) find a bit buggy.

As Apple has pointed out, many popular Websites have made the move to support HTML5 video alongside or, in some cases, instead of Flash. HTML5 is the latest and greatest version of the Web's core markup language. The new HTML5 standard makes it possible for Websites to embed video that your computer can play without requiring a third-party plugin (like Flash).

Representatives from browser makers like Apple, Mozilla, and Firefox were involved in the Working Group that advised editor Ian Hickson as he worked on the HTML5 "spec"--the document that governs what is and isn't valid HTML5. (You don't want to know too much about the process of creating these specs; I imagine it's worse than a trip to the sausage factory.) The unfortunate takeaway was this: the big browser developers couldn't agree on which video format the new tag in HTML5 should use: some sided with H.264, others with a format called Ogg Theora.

As Hickson summarized the situation in an e-mail to the Web-standards body WHATWG, Apple refused to implement Ogg Theora in QuickTime--which Safari uses to decode video--"citing lack of hardware support and an uncertain patent landscape." Mozilla and Opera both refused to implement H.264, expressing concerns about its licensing requirements. Google implemented both H.264 decoding (which Apple and QuickTime do support) and Ogg Theora in Chrome, but expressed concern about the quality-per-bit of Ogg Theora video.

Without getting too detailed about all these licensing and patent objections, the gist is simply that video standards are often patented, and the use of those standards requires a license. The MPEG LA group, which owns the H.264 video codec, had declared that it wouldn't charge any royalty fees until 2016, but Mozilla and Opera were worried about what those future costs might be. Should H.264 video become a de facto Web standard in the meantime, the MPEG LA group would be in a position to charge a healthy fee for browser developers to keep using the format.

Originally published on www.macworld.com. Click here to read the original story.
Reprinted with permission from Macworld.com. Story copyright 2012 Mac Publishing, LLC. All rights reserved.
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