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HTML5 video in Internet Explorer 9

The codec selection is a long-standing challenge with HTML5 video. The present HTML5 draft specification refrains from mandating any particular codec, and it ends up with a schism. Mozilla Firefox and Opera have gotten behind Theora, citing its openness; Apple Safari and now Microsoft Internet Explorer 9 have gone for H.264. Google Chrome supports both video codecs.

HTML5 video in Internet Explorer 9

HTML5 video in Internet Explorer 9

It is not a big surprise for Microsoft to support H.264 in Internet Explorer 9. But HTML5 video IE9 support is the first time ever that Microsoft has provided a rationale for its decision. Why IE9 supports H.264 not other HTML5 video in IE9? Undoubtedly H.264 has some advantages. It’s standardized and it has wider support from both software and hardware than other video codecs. This move also provides a migration path of sorts from Adobe Flash; the same H.264 video file can be played both in Flash and via the native browser support, which allows site owners to target both HTML5 and Flash users with a single codec. Other software vendors follow this, such as the newly released HTML5 Video Player from Socusoft. This HTML5 video tool builds its Flash fallback capability in the ground of the support to H.264 codec from Flash. However the most significant benefit of H.264 video codec, cited by Microsoft, was intellectual property as the IP behind H.264 can be licensed through a program managed by MPEG LA. Other codecs, but Theora is obviously the most widespread alternative for HTML5 video may have source availability, but they can’t offer the same clear intellectual property rights situation. It explained why H.264 is the HTML5 video in Internet Explorer 9.

On the other side, H.264 has its own problems as well. At present, it is royalty-free for Web usage, but there are no guarantees that how long this will continue in the future. On the contrary, Theora is perpetually royalty-free.

The status of Theora might change if patent concerns emerge-though designed to avoid patented technology, there is not any guarantee in the murky world of software patents. As a result, for web browser vendors, there is always some risk to take. Nevertheless the depressing reality is true of H.264 too. MPEG LA may insist it owns all necessary intellectual property rights to H.264, but one never knows when a patent troll might emerge unexpectedly from the deep. As a result H.264 could be the safer choice for Microsoft, however the difference is not as obvious as Microsoft makes out.

Microsoft’s decision on the HTML5 video codec in IE9 may also be premature if Google opens up VP8, as is widely expected. If Google does indeed publish the source, and offers perpetual royalty-free usage of the VP8 patents, the codec may offer the same level of freedom and openness as Theora, combined with the corporate backing of Google, and assurances that both Google (and On2 before it) have done their due diligence.

Google would also have the power to promote VP8 in other ways; as owner of YouTube, the company could, in principle, make VP8 one of the most widely used codecs online. Adoption by the company’s own Chrome browser is all but certain, and if the terms are suitable, VP8 could also find its way into Firefox and Opera. This kind of a move would certainly give VP8 substantial momentum.

Microsoft’s decision to support only one HTML video codec in IE 9 is also a little surprising when one considers the way in which video support will be implemented. Internet Explorer 9 will the Media Foundation media decoding framework that’s part of Windows Vista and Windows 7. Just like its predecessor, DirectShow, Media Foundation is an extensible framework that facilitates third-party codecs to plug in to the media infrastructure so that applications can use them conveniently.

If Microsoft allowed IE9 to use Media Foundation without any restrictions, it would enable the browser to use whatever codecs were installed; H.264 is already included with Windows 7, so it might be a good default. Yet there’s nothing in the multimedia industry that can prevent Google from producing a VP8 plugin for Media Foundation, for example. This would offer automatic support to IE9 users for VP8 video.

That is to say, when browser locked down in its protected mode sandbox, and the truth that Media Foundation codecs should all be modern, the risk seems marginal. Moreover, there are likely other ways to feed malicious video into insecure codecs.

To all web browsers, HTML5 video is a very important part, there is no exception of Internet Explorer 9, given the industry support for H.264, Microsoft’s selection of HTML5 video codec was not entirely astonishing. However the decision to reject the more open codecs is somewhat frustrating.

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