File Under: Browsers, Mobile, Multimedia

Firefox for Android, Now With Video That ‘Just Works’

H.264 video in Firefox for Android. Image: Scott Gilbertson.

Mozilla has added support for the H.264 video codec to its Firefox for Android mobile web browser.

Right now support is limited to Android 4.1 (Jelly Bean) and Samsung phones running Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich). Mozilla is working to fix some bugs that currently prevent H.264 from working on other devices. Support for older Gingerbread and Honeycomb Android devices is still in the works.

This is the first time Mozilla has released a web browser with support for the popular H.264 codec. The company previously refused to support H.264, citing royalty and licensing concerns. Instead Mozilla touted Google’s WebM codec, which offers many of the benefits of H.264 in a royalty-free package. Unfortunately for Firefox fans WebM has failed to gain ground against H.264.

Adobe’s Flash Player plugin can also play H.264 video and, until Adobe decided to abandon Flash for Android, that was Mozilla’s solution for H.264 video in Firefox for Android.

With WebM adoption lagging and Flash for Android dead, Mozilla found itself in a bind. Some estimates claim up to 80 percent of video on the web is encoded in H.264, forcing Mozilla to choose between supporting H.264 on Android or leaving Firefox users with no way to watch video on mobile devices. Fortunately for Firefox users, Mozilla decided to be practical and support H.264.

Technically the new H.264 support is not a part of Firefox, rather the browser is tapping into Android’s underlying H.264 support to decode video. That means royalty payments are covered by hardware makers, not Mozilla.

I tested Firefox for Android’s H.264 on a Samsung Galaxy Nexus running Android 4.1 and for the most part H.264 video worked without issue. Some popular video sharing sites, however, appear to be doing OS/browser detection rather than feature detection — I’m looking at you Vimeo — which means that, even though your phone can play the video, Vimeo thinks it can’t.

Hopefully Vimeo and other sites doing the same thing will fix this soon because Mozilla is planning to bring the same H.264 support to the desktop. As with Firefox for Android, desktop Firefox won’t have its own decoder, but will rely on OS-level H.264 decoders. For end users though the result will be the same — video that just works.