Hopes were high that everything would become easier with the new HTML5 web standard for playing videos directly in internet browsers.
In theory, the standard does away with the need for additional, CPU-greedy video players and corrects the problem of certain videos not playing because no compatible software is installed.
However, in reality, competition among large corporations and a controversial patent situation are proving to be major roadblocks to harmony.
One issue is the daunting complexity of the task of transferring large volumes of data over the network in a highly compact manner and to correctly assemble the information at the destination.
The corresponding software is called a codec, which stands for “coder/decoder.” These tools use sophisticated algorithms to compress video images with as little data loss as possible to enable fast transmission. The images are then “unpacked” before being displayed on screen.
But the video codec is only part of the total picture. Even a simple amateur video comprises sound, and movies often have multiple soundtracks plus possibly also subtitles.
The various data are packaged using so-called container formats, which come in many shapes and sizes. To name just a few, there is AVI - used by Microsoft’s Windows OS - DivX, or Quicktime from Apple.
Another contender is Adobe Flash, which Apple has banned from its iPhones and iPads because of alleged inefficiencies. Free alternatives include Ogg or Matroska. This wide variety generates some confusion, especially since it is hard for normal users to keep codecs and containers apart.
As far as codecs are concerned, there are several competing formats. Up until recently, the H.264 standard had established itself as the clear leader, and Apple and Microsoft, as well as Blu-ray disks and digital TV broadcasts, rely on this format. It was jointly developed by several industrial groups and is also known as MPEG-4 Part 10 or AVC (Advanced Video Coding).
HTML5 pages also support this format for playing videos directly in a browser. So why is it not the universally accepted web video standard of the future? Here’s the catch: H.264 does not come free. An industrial consortium called MPEG LA holds all rights. There is a tiered licensing system, but prices are not openly published.
What is known is that the maximum annual fee is five million dollars. Many companies are not so much concerned about the present licensing costs, but they fear that, should this standard turn into a monopoly, MPEG LA might gradually increase the price.
Still, H.264 had been considered the big winner in the video market until internet giant Google introduced an alternative, the open standard webM based on the VP8 video codec.
Google gained the rights to VP8 when it acquired developer On2 Technologies and declared the codec open software a year ago. This spring Google took the next step by announcing that future versions of their browser Chrome will no longer directly support H.264.
On top of this, Google’s YouTube video platform will start making available all clips in webM/VP8 format in addition to the flv (Flash movie) format currently used.
Two large factions are pitted against each other, yet this battle will not be won through direct confrontation.
For example, the current Mozilla browser Firefox 4 can play the Theora video codec and Google’s webM on HTML5 webpages. Apple’s Safari browser, on the other hand, supports H.264 but not webM and Theora. Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 9 can handle H.264 but requires an add-on for webM.
The industrial consortium behind H.264 is taking a roundabout route of attack: MPEG LA contends that webM and VP8 infringes on several of its patents.
“If I had to place money on one of the two, I’d go for MPEG LA, not Google,” says renowned patent expert Florian Mueller.
The reason, he says, is that it is very difficult to enter into a technologically well-developed field without infringing on any patent rights. No matter how the struggle ends, consumers will not be rid of the current format jungle for a good while yet.