Eyes Above The Waves

Robert O'Callahan. Christian. Repatriate Kiwi. Hacker.

Tuesday 11 December 2007

Video Wars

Cory Doctorow on BoingBoing has an eloquent survey of the battle lines over codecs for Web video ... a battle which is starting to heat up. Chris Double is over in San Jose right now preparing for the W3C Video on the Web workshop where this will no doubt be a critical issue.

We have here a culture clash. On the Web we have more or less established an expectation that standards will be implementable royalty-free. Attempts to introduce royalty-bearing standards are shot down or worked around. Audio and video standards, on the other hand, have a tradition of patent encumbrance and licensing pools --- not to mention DRM attempts. Now these two worlds are colliding.

My personal opinion is that DRM is an expensive and futile exercise. DRM schemes promote monopolies, hamstring innovation, and exclude free software. Moreover the experiment has been tried and it has failed, as the music industry seems to be acknowledging. Mere patent encumbrance isn't as bad as DRM, but it's still a problem for free software and truly open standards.

The good news is that browsers can support more than one codec. The W3C and others who favour an open Web should promote unencumbered codecs as a baseline, which today probably means Ogg Theora and Vorbis. Then everyone will have at least the option of free (both senses) production and consumption of media. Whichever vendors are willing to pay patent taxes can also offer encumbered codecs, and I suppose big media companies will be able to continue their DRM attempts that way.


Peter Kasting
According to Ars Technica's article re: Nokia, Ogg Theora has patent encumbrances too (although I don't know how problematic they could actually be).
Robert O'Callahan
All patents known to apply to Theora have been made available to the public under a perpetual free license, so those are not problematic at all.
U R hopeless optimist. Lolz.
Ted Mielczarek
According to Hixie's comments, Apple and Nokia are worried about submarine patents, not any patents already disclosed about OGG. Still sorta sucks though.
Robert O'Callahan
Submarine patents kind of need their own blog entry. "There could be submarine patents!" is a weak argument because taken to the limit, it argues you should never do anything.
Dave Hyatt
Yes, but in this case Apple has already assumed the risk for technically superior codecs like H.264. Why should they assume an additional risk for a technically inferior codec? While an open codec is an admirable goal, it should be technically competitive. Theora is not.
Robert O'Callahan
Theora is not as good as H.264, but it's good enough to be very useful. From the point of view of someone who wants to use an open codec, it doesn't make sense to be told they can't because it's lower quality than a closed codec.
(Apparently the Theora encoder can be improved a lot without changing the spec.)
If a better quality unencumbered codec is available, we should push that instead. But it isn't, and waiting indefinitely for that to change seems like a bad idea for the open Web.
> Why should they assume an additional risk for a
> technically inferior codec?
If they care about the open Web, they should. If they don't care about the open Web, then it's up to those who do --- Mozilla, the W3C, Wiki*, and whoever else to try to pressure them into it by any available means.
John Drinkwater
So Apple are suggesting we choose Ogg+Dirac then? Open and technically competitive. We just have to wait for it to be finalised. Oh, and for them to �assume the risk�.
Vorbis & Theora seem like the best choice while we wait.
I think Theora is a mistake.
My reasons are thus:
1/ It really is far below the current level of video technology. It's akin to MPEG-1, and lacks even a number of MPEG-2 equivalent features. The technology is frankly mid-90's. It also suffers badly in comparison to Vorbis and Speex, which are technically on par with modern codecs.
2/ It's not actually finished. Yes, it's actually usable, unlike Dirac, which is several years away from even that point, but it hasn't gotten to a 1.0 release yet, and that is after being in Open Source development for over six years. This indicates that developer community around Theora is not strong enough. Again, don't conflate Ogg Theora with Ogg Vorbis, just because the umbrella oganisation is the same - Firefox and Sunbird (I was going to say Grendal, but that is far too extreme) are both Mozilla projects, but have quite different levels of quality and developer momentum.
3/ I'd actually like to be able to pay artists for the work they produce. DRM allows this. Don't let the fact that Big Media wants DRM make you think that DRM can't be used for me to pay an artist in Vancouver directly. In fact, by not having a DRM solution, you are cutting off a channel that would allow independent artists to sell me their work without Big Media.
4/ The general public does not know or care that it exists. Because you are Open Source developers, it's possible you may actually have some Theora content on your machine. But let me assure you that 99.9% of your users (probably vastly more) do not. Are you producing a web browser for just Open Source developers, or for the general public?
5/ Video on the web has already moved beyond embedded video files. It is currently delivered by Flash, with of course has an entire programming environment at it's disposal. Leaving Theora aside, I don't believe that the video tag can provide the same experience that the public and website developers have already come to expect.
I'm not trying to piss anyone off, or start a fight - I genuinely believe that the Open Source movements time would be better spent on other work. You want an open web? Then put developer effort into creating a modern, high-quality, patent-free video codec that everyone can use on the web, rather than pushing a technically deficient standard whose chances of being widely used (and not just "present" inside the browser) are minimal. If it's good and free, it will get used. PNG did, as vaguely comparable example. Ditto for an Open Source replacement for Flash.
Again - and I really do want to stress this - I'm absolutely not trying to make anyone angry here.
Robert O'Callahan
1) That may or may not be true, but it's definitely good enough to be useful. Demos show this.
2) It may or may not be true that the development community around Theora is "not strong enough", but if it is true, it would hurt, not help, to split the community by running off to create a new codec as you suggest ... unless you have very specific ideas about how your new project would succeed where Theora has (you claim) failed. Do you? If so, please share them.
3) How does a lack of DRM prevent you from paying artists? For example, there are a lot of online music stores where you can buy DRM-free music.
4) The general public doesn't know anything about video codecs. But anyway, there's a chicken-and-egg problem where there's no point in publishing Theora content until there's a widely-distributed client for viewing it. Firefox can be one such client. And more importantly: we've never said that we would ONLY support Theora.
5) The Web also has an entire programming environment at its disposal: HTML, CSS, Javascript, the DOM, etc. Assuming you've read the WHATWG spec, do you have specific scenarios that you believe are not addressed? If so, please share them.
The chances for Theora uptake are unknown, but Theora provides a solution today for people who want to distribute video at zero cost and/or using free software, without violating licenses or laws, and without entrusting everything to a third party such as Youtube. I think there's probably a significant set of people in that category.
Jonas Sicking
It surprises me that apple is so happy to jump on the patent bandwagon. They used to stand firmly behind royalty-free only for web standards:
I guess that's changed for some reason :(