Browser vendor squabbles cause W3C to scrap codec requirement

The decision could mean third-party plug-ins needed to play multimedia content will be around for a long time

The latest rewrite of the Web's mother tongue won't recommend the use of specific audio and video encoding formats that could make it cheaper and easier for people to distribute multimedia content.

The major browser makers have been unable to agree on an encoding format they will support in their products, wrote Ian Hickson, editor of the HTML5 specification for the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).

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Plans have been discussed for years to incorporate two new tags -- <audio> and <video> -- into HTML5, the next specification under development. The original HTML specification never included those tags.

Because of that, people have to download plugins from various vendors to play audio and video content. If browsers support the audio and video tags, however, as well as a common encoding format, Web users wouldn't have to use third-party applications for that content.

The browser would play the content natively, which makes Web development somewhat simpler and would not require users to download a raft of plugins.

But the issue of what codec to use has been a hot potato. The codecs likely to have been recommended would have been Ogg Vorbis for audio and Ogg Theora for video, both of which can be implemented without paying royalties unlike with other formats.

Supporters for the use of those formats argue that no one company should profit or hold the power over a particular codec, which could influence its development and use depending on a company's business plans.

If browsers supported those codecs, Web developers could use open-source tools and encoders for those formats to put multimedia on their site for free, potentially striking a blow against vendors such as Adobe, Microsoft, RealNetworks and others that sell multimedia software tools.

Apple won't support Ogg Theora in QuickTime, the company's multimedia player, Hickson wrote. Apple has also expressed concern over patents associated with Ogg Theora. Even though the codec can be used royalty-free, Apple has been concerned that some party could make a claim if it ends up implemented in its products.

Opera and Mozilla oppose using the H.264 video compression standard for various reasons, including the cost of licensing the relevant patents as well distribution issues, Hickson wrote. Google uses H.264 and Ogg Theora in Chrome, but also has a problem in how it can distribute the browser through third parties due to licensing issues with H.264, he wrote. Microsoft hasn't made a commitment to support the video tag, he wrote.

"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.

"I have therefore removed the two subsections in the HTML5 spec in which codecs would have been required, and have instead left the matter undefined, as has in the past been done with other features," Hickson concluded.

Browser makers, however, can always make their own decision on what they want to support in their products. Mozilla's latest browser, Firefox 3.5 which was released this week, supports the audio and video tags as well as the Ogg Theora and Ogg Vorbis codecs.

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