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Mozilla Signals Firefox Defeat Over H.264 Support

Posted by: , 13:53 AEDT, Tue March 20, 2012

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Mozilla says it's ready to offer support for H.264 video playback, as it can no longer afford to ignore the codec that's become an industry standard
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Mozilla has signalled it will start supporting the patent-saddled H.264 codec, even if it goes against everything the open-source outfit believes in.

But the popularity and ubiquity of H.264, also known as MPEG-4 AVC, means that Mozilla could no longer ignore the video codec if it wanted to provide the same user experience as other major browsers.

At the onset of the "HTML5 Video Wars", the battle over which video codec will ultimately become the default HTML5 video codec, Mozilla vehemently rejected H.264 as an option for the open-source browser, due to the codec's multiple patents. Instead, they opted for Google's patent and royalty free WebM codec, based on On2's VP8 codec (Google acquired On2 in 2009). Apple and Microsoft, on the other hand, were fully in support of H.264, with the latter holding many patents in the patent pool for the codec. H.264 is also used in Blu-ray, by Netflix, VUDU and other video streaming services, and has long been the codec of choice for web video sharing websites such as YouTube. 

HTML5 allows Flash-like video without the need for third-party plug-ins, and so a default or standardized video format is required for HTML5 video to take off.

However, WebM has not taken off as a format due to its inefficiencies compared to H.264, which has not been helped by its lack of support by hardware makers, many of whom also hold patents in H.264. The failure of Google in promoting its own format didn't help either, as Google's ongoing competition with Apple (who supports H.264 on everything) means the company has little room to manoeuvre when it comes to video support.

And so the situation now means that Mozilla has to "swallow" its principles and start offering H.264 support, particularly in their mobile products, in order to "succeed".

"It’s time to focus on shipping products people can love now, and to work on developing a new tactic for bringing unencumbered technology to the world of audio and video codecs," blogged Mozilla Foundation chair Mitchell Baker.

"H.264 is absolutely required right now to compete on mobile. I do not believe that we can reject H.264 content in Firefox on Android or in B2G and survive the shift to mobile," added Mozilla's chief technology officer Brendan Eich on his own blog post.

Mozilla's H.264 would most likely be limited to providing access to existing hardware and software decoding options already present in the operating system, as opposed to including its own H.264 decoder.

While most of the discussions are centered around mobile products, it is believed that the discussions have already moved onto the desktop version of Firefox, and it is expected the same level of support will be added.


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