File Under: Browsers, HTML5, Multimedia

Mozilla Plans H.264 Video for Desktop Firefox

Mozilla is getting closer to making H.264 video work in Firefox.

The company’s recently released Firefox for Android already bakes in OS-level support for the H.264 video codec and now Mozilla is adding support to desktop Firefox as well.

Mozilla long opposed supporting the H.264 codec because it’s patent-encumbered and requires licensing fees. It’s also the most popular codec for HTML5 video on the web, which drove Mozilla to swallow its ideals and get practical about adding support to Firefox. Instead of including the codec directly in Firefox, the browser will rely on OS-level tools to play H.264 video.

There’s still no support for H.264 in the current desktop version of Firefox, but as Mozilla CTO, Brendan Eich recently noted on his blog, work is under way and, with the exception of Windows XP, all platforms will get OS-native codec support for H.264 video. Windows XP, which lacks OS-level tools for H.264, will continue to use the Flash plugin to play H.264 movies.

If you’d like to keep track of Mozilla’s progress adding H.264 to the desktop there’s a tracking bug that follows solutions for all the major desktop platforms. Eich does not give an explicit timeline or any hint of when H.264 support might ship with Firefox on the desktop.

The HTML5 video element was supposed to offer a standards-based way to play movies on the web without proprietary plugins like Flash or Silverlight. Unfortunately that dream has failed to pan out. Instead of proprietary plugins, the web ended up with proprietary video codecs, which has created a split in browser support for HTML5 video. Firefox and Opera support the open Ogg and WebM codecs, while Safari and Internet Explorer supported H.264.

Mozilla (and Opera) were against the adoption of H.264 on ideological grounds — H.264 is not an open codec and requires that companies using it pay royalties. But earlier this year the company partially reversed course and said it would support H.264 on devices where the codec is supplied by the platform or implemented in hardware.

In announcing its change of heart with regard to H.264, Eich wrote, “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…. Failure on mobile is too likely to consign Mozilla to decline and irrelevance.”

However, while Mozilla may have abandoned the fight against H.264 in HTML5 video, it has taken up the same banner when it comes to WebRTC. WebRTC is a group of proposed standards that will eventually make web apps capable of many of the same feats that currently require platform-native APIs. In his recent post detailing the progress of H.264 support, Eich says that Mozilla is still focused on “the fight for unencumbered formats” for WebRTC, and promises “more on that front later”.