Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Skip to the end - the Video Codec Wars are coming

Today I'm going to be trying my hand at predicting the future, at least for the next five years.

This week the Mozilla foundation released Firefox 3.5. In addition to the slew of performance and security improvements, this new and improved version comes with support for the HTML 5 video element.

At just about the same time, tech sites are awash with news that attempts to standardise on a video codec for use with HTML video have hit a brick wall. Apple and Google are pushing H.264, which is arguably the most technically competent of the proposals, the open source scene (including Mozilla) and Opera are pushing Ogg/Theora because it is (as far as they can tell) patent- and royalty-free, and Microsoft is doing the usual, i.e. nothing, because even though IE is broken in more basic ways than web video most people use it anyway because that's what they get when they turn on their new computer for the first time.

Now, it's been over a decade since it was my job to pour over everything that comes out of the W3C and wax lyrical on who or when was ever going to implement it, but I can't shake the depressing sense of déjà vu. JavaScript vs. VBScript, Java vs. ActiveX, CSS vs. the blink tag, it's the same story. Somebody comes up with a cool hack that allows you to do something interesting, then attempts to standardise it are sabotaged by incumbents that push their own agenda and five to ten years later the dust settles and the standard emerges, and everybody can finally do what they've been technically able to do for ages without all the hassle.

I've been following this stuff long enough to be comfortable looking into my crystal ball and making a prediction as to how this is going to play out: YouTube (the killer app in the web video space) will go H.264 because, well, it's Google and they bloody well can if they want to (and they want to, if only because their bandwidth costs will be cut in half and they can afford the royalties) and Apple will rub its hands in glee as its existing investment in H.264 makes Macs and iPhones have the best out-of-the-box YouTube experience.

Enter an army of copyright lawyers marching in lockstep, brandishing the DMCA in one hand and pictures of poor, starving artists in the other, preaching doom and gloom about how this will be the death of TV and movies because standard video codecs will mean anyone can save and share streaming web video, all the while conveniently ignoring the fact that you can already do this with FLV and that anyway, if this is free streaming video available on the Web, who the hell cares if you can save it and share it? Regardless, these guys have to make a living, so cue a couple of high-profile, multi-million dollar lawsuits that climb the appeals ladder all the way to a District Court in the US, with a red-tape-adorned sideshow in the EU and a couple of random countries like New Zealand or South Korea passing oddball laws that nobody else understands before being beaten into submission by the WIPO.

The freetards start causing a fuss and wearing "Ogg till I die" T-shirts in their own little echo chamber which the rest of the world comfortably ignores. Microsoft still doesn't care, or to be more precise is loving the fact that it can rain on Google, Apple and Mozilla's parades simultaneously just by sitting on its arse and doing nothing (though I'm giving odds on IE 10 or so having a broken, incompatible HTML 5 video implementation that only supports VC-1 and throws yet another spanner in the works).

Of course, this isn't the 1990s, and Apple controls the de facto standard mobile environment, plus it's got every iPod user (and gods know there's a few of those) installing QuickTime + iTunes on their Windows boxen, so it'll sneak an IE plug-in that does HTML 5 video + H.264 through that delivery channel. Debian users will still grumble, some of them downloading plug-ins separately, others remaining stark refuseniks that just don't watch Web video (which is no great loss to them anyway because they've probably only read about the evil that is YouTube on the FSF newsletter) while the more open-minded Linux distributions bite the bullet and provide a plug-in anyway.

Cue yet another army of lawyers - patent lawyers this time - and at least one upstart company that nobody has heard of with an attorney-to-employee ratio in the double digits that claims it invented video before the camcorder. More litigious absurdity ensues. Eventually lawsuits are settled, patents expire and somebody finds a way to provide an as-free-as-makes-no-difference implementation.

Adobe, in the mean time, is scratching its head, wondering how it had its runtime installed on 90% of the desktops out there and spectacularly failed to make anything out of it. Expect some panicked lashings out, possibly involving yet more lawyers, until it just calls the whole thing off and goes back to concentrating on what it does best, i.e. making money off of Photoshop and InDesign.

Of course by this time, with Macs, Windows boxes with iTunes, iPhones, most Linux boxes and a bunch of other platforms being able to play H.264 and content providers pushing it, it's become a standard. I estimate we're around the year 2015 by now, so the same realisation will probably be dawning on Hollywood that dawned on the music industry around 2009, and they'll be offering all their stuff in DRM-free formats too.

Right about this time most video on the Internet will be H.264, with just about every platform except Windows and Debian being able to play it out of the box, and a simple one-click install being available for those too. A few years later Microsoft may even capitulate and stick it in there too. At this point, I estimate about five to seven years from now, we'll have a standard way to deliver video on the Internet, and no one company will be able to control it. Of course, by then, H.264 will be laughably obsolete and we'll be starting the whole dance again over whatever is flavour of the month, I don't know, 3D video or something.

So there you have it. Make some popcorn, sit back and enjoy the show. We've all seen it all before, but that's not stopping anyone. As fun as it is, however, it's just so depressing. Do we really have to go through this rigmarole every time someone comes up with a new technology? Does it really need to take 5-10 years before we can use it without the hassle? Do we really need to spend billions on lawyers and lobbyists and have a whole bunch of companies go bust just so we can do what we can already do right now?

To quote Battlestar Galactica, all this has happened before - and all of it will happen again.

But to quote Spaced, can't we just skip to the end?

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