File Under: HTML5, Multimedia

Opera CTO Sees Open Video Formats as Key to Web’s Future

With all the fervor over HTML5 video, the death of Flash and the future of open video on the web we thought it might be helpful to ask the man who proposed the HTML5 video tag for his opinion on the matter.

It shouldn’t be any great surprise that Opera CTO Hakon Lie — famous for denouncing Microsoft and championing the free, open web — believes HTML5 needs a royalty free video codec.

“The <video> element in HTML5, which Opera proposed and demonstrated in early 2007, points to the future — but only when combined with a free and open video format,” Lie tells Webmonkey in an e-mail.

In other words, a tag for video in HTML5 is not enough; in order for HTML5 to have any real benefit over Flash, the web needs a free and open video format all browsers can play. Currently, Opera and Firefox support Ogg Theora, which is believed to be free of patents and thus, open and royalty-free. The quality of Ogg video is rapidly approaching that of competing technologies. Unfortunately, Apple and Google have opted to support H.264, which has licensing fees attached. Even though the group that holds the licensing rights to the format, MPEG LA, recently extended its royalty deadline to 2016, it’s a move many believe is designed to make H.264 more appealing and undercut any further interest in Ogg Theora.

Yet Lie feels that perhaps the most important part of the web’s success is that no single company can control it.

“No vendor or licensing cartel should be able to charge for using web standards,” Lie says.

Imagine for a moment if the JPEG image format has the same royalty structure as H.264. Sites like Flickr, Picasa or even Facebook would probably not exist given the potential costs that such sites would incur.

Unfortunately, since Apple and Google have thus far decided to marginalize Ogg Theora, the debate over the future of HTML5 video is at something of a deadlock. Current viable solutions include options like Video For Everybody which works in all browsers but requires content producers to create two videos — one in H.264 and one in Ogg Theora. That scenario brings the web full circle to same dilemma that led to developers embracing Flash for web video — one video, one player, one solution.

So is there a way out? There are several, actually.

It’s possible that, with Opera and Mozilla supporting Theora, something as simple as YouTube offering Theora-encoded video could force MPEG LA to make even more concessions and further alter the royalty structure of H.264.

It’s also possible that in the next six years — the time until H.264′s royalty fees kick in — that something entirely new will come along. However, it’s worth pointing out that the MPEG LA consortium governs almost 2000 video encoding patents. The odds of anyone creating an entirely new way of encoding video that doesn’t somehow infringe on at least one of those patents is pretty slim.

Proponents of free open web video (including Webmonkey) have suggested in the past that, should Google’s pending acquisition of video technology maker On2 go through, Google might have an opportunity to change things. On2 makes a codec called VP8, and if Google were to release VP8 as a free, open source codec, it could significantly alter the video landscape. After all, Google owns YouTube and puts out the Chrome browser, so adoption would get a huge kick-start. Unfortunately, it’s equally possible that VP8 could violate some of the MPEG-LA patents, nullifying its benefit.

For the time being at least, Ogg Theora remains the best choice for free, open video on the web.

SMPTE color bars by Denelson83/Wikimedia Commons, CC

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