Thoughts on Youtube 'abandoning' Firefox and Opera

Posted by hkwint on Jan 23, 2010 11:11 AM EDT
LXer Linux News; By H.Kwint
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LXer Feature: 23-Jan-2010

A new test version of Youtube offers HTML 5 video support, meaning watching videos without Adobe Flash, but only when browsing with Chrome or Safari. While this might seem strange at first, and might sound like Google is abandoning its Firefox users, things are a little bit more complicated.

For a long time, people have been fed up with Flash and especially Youtube depending on it. User reports of Flash crashing their browser or hogging up CPU are numerous. Also Flash suffers from lots of vulnerabilities. Apart from that it's closed source and it depends on closed standards.

It seems Google is well aware of this. That's why they embraced HTML 5 and so did Safari, Firefox and Opera. Like one could have suspected, IE is not joining at this 'early stage' and Firefox and Opera only offer native support for the free video format Theora. Safari only offers native support for the patented video format h.264. Chrome offers both. Because Youtube chose to only use h.264, Firefox users are left in the cold - as of now. The site Webmonkey has a good article on this issue.

So the question rises: "Why is there no OGG support in Youtube?" Numerous people claimed it is because Google is afraid of submarine patents for the Theora video format. While Xiph, the foundation behind Theora claims it is not patent encumbered but you cannot be sure until it is used by the masses and it would be an interesting target for companies. It's only an interesting target if royalties for patents will generate enough income to justify legal costs. Apart from that there is also the mid-2009 discussion about which format offered the best video quality.

In this discussion Chris DiBona of Google was reluctant to make Google support Theora. Apart from that there is also the 'mass' at the Google servers themselves: People assume most Youtube-videos are stored in h.264, so it's more convenient to broadcast in that format as it requires less conversion.

Now what could be a solution for Firefox users who want to join the fun and get rid of Flash when visiting Youtube rather sooner than later? I see several solutions. The best would be Google starts making videos available in the Theora format as well, serving Theora for Opera and Firefox and h.264 to Chrome, Safari and IE - the latter using the ChromeTab extension. Another non-solution which I could imagine would be Google telling their users just to use Chrome instead.

After all it's a 'free' browser even if the Chrome project itself can be considered closed like the h.264 codec because even 'free' implementations of the codec may be patent encumbered. Google might use Youtube as a vehicle to push people from Firefox to Chrome. Apart from that non-solution not being very likely, about ~25% of the browsing people in the world would be forced to switch - this could cause problems with regulatory agencies like the infamous "DG of Competition" in Brussels, and cases like that are expensive.

Another solution would be, that Firefox provides h.264 functionality by offering a plug-in they "don't officially endorse", and probably wouldn't be available on their own servers as the legality of such a solution would certainly be disputed. Nonetheless, just like with MP3, the ones owning money from the format probably wouldn't go after end users and makers of free software. From what I understand, a plugin effort like this is already on its way, but not yet for Linux as well. A simpler solution would be to glue the HTML 5 video tag to mplayer as a Linux-solution, because then whole Firefox including its plugins would steer clear of any IP allegations

However, such a plugin would derail the efforts of Opera A.S. and Mozilla to make sure the 'open web thrives'. After all, if Firefox and Opera understand h.264, than there's not much need for an open standard - at least not in the view of end users.

Other solutions have also been proposed on WhatWG mailing list, the list where the HTML 5 video feature was discussed. Like using some kind of 'hack' in a webpage to send Flash to the browsers which don't support h.264 natively, and send h.264 to the browsers who do. I think when it comes to Linux that's the most likely outcome, together with the mplayer-hack. For the time being this will lead to a myriad of different combinations and possibilities: Like for example Firefox supporting the HTML 5 video tag with h.264 via MPlayer, but Google or a website not understanding Firefox can play it and only offering Flash. While other websites happily offer OGG, which Safari users cannot see.

Basically because Apple denies to include Theora in its official Quicktime-plugin list; they'd rather see Theora leave this world because it means no income for them. IE users will have to use the ChromeTab extension to view HTML5, and in some later stadium IE will probably offer limited HTML5 support, it has to if it wants to remain relevant in the internet world dictated by Google and - when it comes to content - Apple.

To summarize all this: The near future will be 'hybrid', with hacks all around and all kind of different combinations, but at least Flash will become less relevant. And I think no freedom-loving person will whine one tear about Flash disappearing.

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Subject Topic Starter Replies Views Last Post
An amusing thing to note that's not really related... techiem2 3 1,302 Jan 25, 2010 5:09 PM
VLC Plugin... ronfischler 2 1,413 Jan 23, 2010 10:26 PM
Submarine patents? dinotrac 2 971 Jan 23, 2010 7:49 PM

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