How Firefox Is Pushing Open Video Onto the Web

The underlying language used to build web pages is being substantially re-written for the first time in a decade.

The W3C, the web’s primary standards body, is revising HTML with an eye on improving the performance and capabilities of rich, browser-based applications. One of the great promises of HTML 5, the emerging standard, is that content creators will be able to embed video and audio files on web pages with the same simplicity and ease as images and links.

The tools being used to power this behavior are the Ogg Theora and Vorbis codecs maintained by the non-profit Xiph.org. Currently, most video and audio on the web is presented using either Adobe’s Flash Player, Microsoft’s Silverlight or Apple’s QuickTime. These are proprietary technologies, which means they come with various restrictions — licenses, patents and fees — attached.

Ogg, being open-source and patent-free, has no fees and very few use restrictions. Ogg has been around for a while. It was beaten out by MP3 in the Napster days as the audio format of choice, and has remained obscure ever since. It’s also gotten a bad reputation because of poor quality and large file sizes compared to competing tools like h.264, which is used by both Quicktime and Flash, and will be used in the next release of Silverlight.

However, in the past year, the quality issues dogging Ogg have been largely solved thanks to the increased interest and involvement of developers who want to see support for open video on the web become a reality.

At a recent developer conference, Google showed off how it was building Ogg support directly into its Chrome browser to handle video playback without using any plug-ins. Mozilla’s Jay Sullivan was then invited on stage, where he announced the next version of Firefox would also include built-in Ogg support, all part of a grand plan among browser makers to, in Sullivan’s words, free video from “plug-in prison.”

Webmonkey got a chance to sit down with Mozilla director of Firefox Mike Beltzner and Mozilla director of platform engineering Damon Sicore to talk about web video in Firefox 3.5, the next version of their company’s browser, which is due at the end of June.

We asked Mozilla how its full-force adoption of open video standards will free video from the so-called “plug-in prison,” and why it’s attempting to do so even though the browser used by some 60% of web surfers, Internet Explorer 8, doesn’t support any of the standards that make this scenario possible. [Clarification: As reader "redvine" points out in the comments, Theora plug-ins do exist for IE8 and IE7. There is no native support for Ogg or for the <video> tag in IE8.]

During our chat, Beltzner and Sicore showed us some demos, all of which are linked to below. Also check out the open video test site at DailyMotion and YouTube’s open video demo, both of which are discussed below. You can view these demos if you’re using any browser that supports native Ogg playback: Firefox 3.5 (the recent betas and the first release candidate) and the latest releases of Google Chrome and Opera. Remember, IE won’t work without plug-ins. Neither will Safari 4 on Mac OSX — the <video> tag is supported, but you’ll need to add Ogg support to Quicktime using the Xiph Quicktime plugin.

Webmonkey: What’s the state of open video support in Firefox 3.5 right now?

Mike Beltzner: We’re not just shipping with support for the HTML 5 video tag, we’re actually also shipping the Ogg Theora codec. Which means with no plug-in, you can watch any video that is encoded using Ogg Theora.

[Beltzner shows a demo of a movie trailer playing in the browser. Pretty straightforward. But unlike a Flash embed, I can increase the page text size with a hot key, and the video sizes up, too. I can also right-click on the video and choose "Save As..." to save the video locally. I view source, and I see the video is embedded in the page with a <video> tag, just like an image. The player controls are all JavaScript. He switches the player code and introduces a little zoom slider in the corner. It uses CSS -- I drag it and it resizes the video.]

Webmonkey: The video is nice and sharp.

Beltzner: We’re really proud of the overall playback quality. A year ago when we started looking at this, I would not have been able to sit here and tell you this is going to be competitive with the web video codecs we see today.

Recently, Chris DiBona, who works at YouTube, said on a mailing list, YouTube is really interested in Ogg, but the problem now is the bitrate is just not competitive, the files are too large. He said “it will break the internet if we switched to Ogg.”

The guys we’re working with at Xiph ran a comparison using the exact same bitrate between YouTube’s encoder and Ogg’s encoder. The sharpness is largely the same, and just a little bit sharper in Ogg. Also, I wrote a post showing that if you use the YouTube high-quality encoder at the same bitrate, Ogg is noticeably sharper.

This is the product of one year of open-source investment in the Ogg codec. I’m super excited about the work that’s gone into it.

Webmonkey: How do you see these factors — the HTML 5 video tag, putting the Ogg codecs right into the browser, presentation techniques that mimic the plug-in player experience — affecting video on the web? What’s it going to change in six months? Or six years?

Beltzner: In six months, you’re going to see more sites like DailyMotion doing things where they detect that the browser supports Ogg and the video tag, and in that case, they’re going to give those users an Ogg-and-video-tag experience.

I think you’ll see content sites doing this because they’ll have the ability to re-encode their entire video libraries without having to pay any licensing fees. The Ogg Theora encoders are completely license-free and patent-proof. They don’t need to worry about which player you’ve got. They also don’t need to worry about which hardware you’ve got. Ogg Theora will run on Windows, Mac and Linux, or any embedded device or mobile device built on the Linux platform.

In six months, that’s what you’re going to see — content sites that are making their first tentative steps into open video, and also people on the bleeding edge starting to do really interactive stuff.

[Beltzner shows two more demos, one using JavaScript and CSS to perform content injection on a looping video, and one which overlays CSS filters onto a video.]

This is really representative of what we think video on the web is going to start to look like — truly interactive stuff where you’re doing client-side manipulation.

Webmonkey: And in six years?

Beltzner: Six years from now, I think you’ll see Ogg video will have taken over the way that PNG has taken over from GIF.

PNG was created for many of the same reasons we’re doing this — graphics were using a licensed encoder which was causing problems for content creators and problems for people who wanted to embed GIF and JPEG viewers onto devices. So, the PNG encoder was created to serve as a patent-unencumbered, unrestricted license way of encoding and unencoding image data. And that is exactly the same thing we’re trying to do with open video.

Also, along the lines of Jay Sullivan’s comment about “freeing video from plug-in prison,” it’s important to note that a lot of cool things have been done with Flash Player in the past, but they’re one-sided. Now, if you see somebody doing something cool in an open video player or an audio player, you can see the code with one click. It’s all JavaScript, CSS and HTML. It works with View Source in the browser, and you can learn from it. So we’ll see more innovation that way.

Webmonkey: One of the major stumbling blocks here is support across all the browsers [Microsoft IE8 and Safari 4 lack native Ogg support]. Do you think everyone is going to eventually play ball? Is this something you’re not really worried about, or is this something you think about every day?

Beltzner: We’re not actively concerned about it. We care more about the content creation sites because that’s why people are using video now. They’re not using it because they have certain players in their computers, they’re using it because they want to get at the videos that are on the web. So I think as long as we continue to make it easier for people to do fun things with video online, people will do it in the formats that are easiest for them to use. And that’s how we’re going to spread it across the web.

Damon Sicore: The key part is just having the client available that can play the videos. If 22.5% of the internet can do that, then it’s a huge step forward.

Webmonkey: What about Theora’s use on set-top video boxes? [For example, Boxee uses a browser based on Mozilla's code to display web video.] Are there any limitations for playing back things like 1080i or 1080p fullscreen HD video?

Beltzner: The codec supports all those things. Right now, it’s more heavily optimized for the type of video you’re going to find on the web, but those targets — full 1080p — are in sight. Again, a year ago, if you played an Ogg video at 1080p, your fans would start to spin and your computer would get really hot. That’s no longer the case. At 1080p, Ogg still doesn’t have the same performance as h.264, but it’s closing in really quickly.

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