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Microsoft Embraces H.264 Video for IE 9

Microsoft on Thursday voiced support for the H.264 video codec in future versions of Internet Explorer, while affirming Adobe Flash in the interim.

Dean Hachamovitch, general manager of Internet Explorer, described the AVC/H.264 video codec as "an excellent format." Moreover, it appears to be the only format Microsoft plans to support when the company rolls out its still-under-development Internet Explorer 9 Web browser.

"In its HTML5 support, IE9 will support playback of H.264 video only," Hachamovitch wrote on the IE blog.

The announcement echoed Microsoft's statements about H.264 support when the company released its IE 9 platform preview at its MIX 10 Web developer event in March. However, Hachamovitch's statement is more emphatic by excluding other video codecs altogether. He doesn't even mention Microsoft's own Silverlight multimedia framework, which enables Flash-like capabilities in Web browsers.

The Worldwide Web Consortium's (W3C's) HTML 5 specification deliberately excluded any recommendations about what video codec to use. The omission was noted last year by Ian Hickson, one of the authors of the HTML 5 draft, in a message-board post for the Web Hypertext Application Technology Working Group.

"After an inordinate amount of discussions, both in public and privately, on the situation regarding codecs for <video> and <audio> in HTML5, I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that there is no suitable codec that all vendors are willing to implement and ship," Hickson wrote in the post.

The browser makers, at least, have staked out their positions on what video codecs will be supported. Apple and Microsoft currently support H.264 for their browsers. Opera and Mozilla Firefox do not support H.264 due to potential licensing costs (according to Hickson). Instead, Opera and Firefox support Ogg Theora, "a free and open video compression format from the Xiph.org Foundation," an Opera developer article explains.

Google supports both H.264 and Ogg Theora in the Chrome browser. Google also has another codec under wraps. In February, Google acquired On2 Technologies for about $125 million, acquiring the rights to On2's VP8 video codec. (On2 had previously developed Theora as its proprietary VP3 video codec before it was released by the Xiph.org Foundation under the BSD free software license.)

Google could stir things up by deciding to release VP8 as an open source solution. The Free Software Foundation urged Google on April 30 to do just that thing, adding that Google should support VP8 on its YouTube video portal. In doing so, Google would be "freeing the web from both Flash and the proprietary H.264 codec," the FSF's open letter explained.

Use and royalty rights to the H.264 codec are managed by MPEG LA, a conglomeration of patent holders, including Microsoft and Apple. MPEG LA, which isn't affiliated with the Motion Picture Expert Group organization, announced in February (PDF) that use of the AVC/H.264 codec for Internet video is free to end users until Dec. 31, 2015. However, it's not clear if its use will be free after that time, nor is it free to independent software developers.

Apple's CEO Steve Jobs recently praised the combination of H.264 and HTML 5 technologies -- even as he reemphasized why Adobe's Flash would not be supported on Apple products. Jobs noted that Adobe added support for H.264 in Flash, but he claimed that Flash uses an older decoder that drains the battery life on mobile devices. He asserted that Flash isn't even needed.

"When websites re-encode their videos using H.264, they can offer them without using Flash at all," Jobs wrote. "They play perfectly in browsers like Apple's Safari and Google's Chrome without any plugins whatsoever, and look great on iPhones, iPods and iPads."

Microsoft's Hachamovitch was a bit more accommodating to Adobe. He noted that Flash has reliability and security issues, but he asserted that "despite these issues, Flash remains an important part of delivering a good consumer experience on today's web."

Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayen rebutted Job's claims in a Wall Street Journal video. Narayen said that the dispute with Apple had nothing to do with technology and everything to do with the business case that Apple was pursuing, including opposition to an "open" platform like Adobe's Flash. Narayen added that Adobe plans to ship Flash 10.1 on June 17, and that it will be supported on the Android open source mobile operating system.

Adobe CTO Kevin Lynch suggested on Thursday that Adobe was moving forward, apart from Apple, and would provide support for other mobile device makers with Flash.

A report by Forrester Research advises enterprise developers to continue to code for the Flash browser plug-in when creating rich Internet applications, saying that HTML 5 has a long way to go before becoming a mature W3C standard. HTML 5 will not make technologies like Adobe's Flash and Microsoft's Silverlight obsolete for "at least the next five years," according to the report.

Forrester's report asserts that HTML 5 represents a "moving target for developers, with no guarantees of real standardization until as late as 2020." It will be 10 years before HTML 5 reaches its finalized state as a W3C standard, according to Forrester.

About the Author

Kurt Mackie is senior news producer for the 1105 Enterprise Computing Group.

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