Sunday, August 29, 2010

¡Viva La H.264! MPEG LA Liberates H.264/AVC For All Free Video Content Forever... But What Does It All Mean??

The video codec format war heated up last week, with the announcement by the MPEG LA, that it has freed up the license of the H.264 AVC (Advanced Video Coding) codec, and will not charge royalties for any content that is free to consumers. The MPEG LA is the firm that manages the patent pool for AVC, and earlier this year, it announced it would not charge royalties for such video through December 31, 2015 (PDF link). But now and forever, it has made it free for the life of the license and will only charge for AVC encoded video content sold to end users in any form for a fee, on a title or subscription basis.

H.264/AVC video format is the digital video coding  industry standard H.264/MPEG-4 Part 10, or AVC  used widely in set-top boxes, media player and other personal computer software, mobile devices, Blu-ray Disc™ players and recorders, game machines, personal media player devices and still and video cameras. Apple has become most outspoken proponent of AVC, and backs it as the standard video codec used for its HTML-5 video compatible mobile iDevices like the iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch, as well as for iTunes videos, and Microsoft also announced support for H.264-encoded HTML5 video in IE9 earlier this year.

Many have speculated that the move by the MPEG LA was spurred on by Google's release of VP8 as an open source royalty free video codec, a new rival to H.264/AVC and potential replacement to the open source Theora. Google announced the release of the VP8 video codec under the WebM Project at the i/O developers conference in May, with broad industry support. Absent from the list of supporters was, of course, Apple.

The tug of war between these two competing video codecs has reached an inflection point according to's Tim Siglin, who says:
"There is little doubt that the most recent announcement by MPEG LA is, in part, a counteraction against the potential inroads that WebM may make in the online video space."
The codec issue is a big dilemma for online video publishers says Jan Ozer. He recently authored a recent survey for StreamingMedia.comSupporting the iPad and HTML5, and found that less Than 50% of publishers ready to implement HTML5 video,

According to Ozer:
"54% of respondents who were considering HTML5 support rated the lack of single codec either a serious concern, or a very serious concern. Lack of HTML5 browser penetration was rated even more of a concern, but that will resolve in time. The codec issue appears to be a permanent problem which will force producers to encode in as many as four or five different formats in the short term, and at least two in the long term."
Rounding out the analysis from Streaming Media is Dan Rayburn who acknowledged that while the MPEG LA's royalty free license is good news for content owners, it does not address the future market needs for subscription based content services and device manufactures who will continue to pay to license the codec.

Rayburn also agreed that the lack of a codec standard is a major sticking point for the industry:
"The news also does nothing to address what I consider to be a bigger issues which is the need for browsers to give us a single codec we can call use. Companies like Mozilla and Opera are still going to have to pay for a license if they want to support H.264 which means we are not any closer to have much in the way of video standard on the Internet."

As far as browsers go, they are waging their own war. Safari supports H.264, Firefox, Opera and Chrome support WebM, and IE9 will support both as well as its own VC-1. Mozilla has refused to support H.264 as a codec for the HTML5 video tag in Firefox, and it's unlikely it will in the future. Theora plays natively in FireFox 3.5, Chrome as of version and Opera as version 10.50.  All browsers can play H.264 encoded video presented in Adobe's Flash plug-in, but as everyone knows, Flash doesn't play within Apple's iOS on its iDevices. According to current global browser market share and trends of the five major browsers, IE 6.0-8.0 leads with 52.68%, followed by FireFox 3.0+-3.5+ with 31.49% and those numbers are growing steadily as people migrate to the newer versions. Chrome has grown to 9.80%, Safari has about 5.09% and Opera is 1.90%.

Ultimately, it's all not just about patents and licenses, there's a much bigger back story. I like this post by Brightcove CEO Jeremy Allaire, The Future of Web Content – HTML5, Flash & Mobile Apps, which provides a detailed industry analysis on the codec format and browser wars. He says video is a cornerstone issue and the emergence of the mobile device industry has brought the issue to the forefront:
"With massive growth in hand-held web browsing from smartphones, iTouch devices and the pending iPad product, this has raised a deeper issue for media publishers who are eager to have their content be accessible to end-users. In particular, it is the show-down between Apple, Google and Adobe over who can control video formats on these devices that is creating challenges. Again, this is not about “what is the right technical solution”, it is about the political economy of who controls the formats that in turn lead to owning downstream audience and monetization opportunities."
While many big video websites, like YouTube and Vimeo, have rolled out their own HTML5 video players, we are held at bay by the big browser developers that can't agree which video codec to support in HTML5. The MPEG LA's move has brought us closer to a standard - with the two dominant video codec standards AVC and WebM - the tug of war continues and we're caught in the struggle. Until there is broad support for all codecs and containers across the industry, we won't be reaching a web video standard anytime soon.


MPEG LA is the world leader in alternative technology licenses, enabling users to acquire worldwide patent rights necessary for a technology standard or platform from multiple patent owners in a single transaction as an alternative to negotiating individual licenses. MPEG LA’s initial licensing program for MPEG-2 digital video compression helped produce the most widely employed standard in consumer electronics history, and the MPEG LA® Licensing Model has become the template for addressing other technologies. Today MPEG LA manages licensing programs consisting of essential patents in 57 countries. MPEG LA is an independent licensing administrator; it is not related to any standards agency and is not an affiliate of any patent holder. For more information, please refer to

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