One of the reasons Firefox 1.0 gained traction against IE6 was the many features it had which visibly benefited the end user. Its pop-up blocker, extensions, and tabs, all gave users a better web experience, which was sorely lacking in IE6. When Firefox 1.0 was launched in 2004, we weren't told, "use the experimental 1.5 branch, that one is better than IE6". At version 1.0, Firefox was able to gain 10% of the browser market in one year after its launch as it was simply a better browser.
This brings me to Theora. Unlike the average Firefox user (or reviewer) who can easily demonstrate the many ways Firefox was better than IE6, reviewers, developers and content providers are hard-pressed to demonstrate the benefits of using the the royalty-free Theora. Few people can demonstrate that Theora is a competitive alternative. If the same had occurred with Firefox, its uptake would have stalled. Imagine Firefox having no features that differentiated it from IE6; no tabs, no extensions, and no pop-up blocker. What incentive would users have for trying it? Because it was built following W3C standards? Because you could view its source code? Because it was free to distribute? All irrelevant to the average end user. Theora will not be used on video sharing sites in the next 5 years if its only benefit is that it is royalty-free. It must earn its space on the content providers' harddrive. It must become better than H.264; not 'competitive', but better. Forcing websites to adopt an inferior format will not increase its usage. If a royalty-free format increases your bandwidth bill, you are not going to use it. Until engineers at the various video sharing sites can demonstrate that Theora is better than H.264 for daily usage, one-shot demos are not going to convince anyone.
With the rapid adoption of Windows 7, over 80% of all personal computers and laptops in the next 5 years will be capable of decoding H.264 content. The end user will have paid for the decoder. This provides Mozilla and Opera an easy 'back-door' to decode H.264 without paying a license fee. In fact, Opera has done so on Linux, with Mozilla planning on doing something similar for Linux in the future.
For Mozilla to claim that it is looking out for the Linux users in developing nations such as Brazil or Kenya is political posturing, seeing that the majority of Firefox users are on Windows. Had Mozilla restricted itself to Linux users, it wouldn't be earning $50+million/yr or have as much clout in the direction of HTML5. How many years have we been reading 'this will be the year for Linux on the desktop', yet its active desktop marketshare is still less than 2%? Are we to let 2% of web users influence the web experience of the remaining 98%?
What experience has streaming Theora provided users over the past year? Low quality video and crackling sound is the response of leading Theora video sharing site, Dailymotion. Is it any surprise that Dailymotion also uses H.264? Whether we like it or not, every benchmark has shown that H.264 is earning its harddrive space. Streaming video on the internet is a business, and businesses are prepared to pay the cost for distributing content. Until Theora provides the same video quality as H.264 whilst using a fraction of the bandwidth, it will not gain traction. With the H.264 being used on smartphones, video game consoles, and other internet accessible devices, H.264 is set to be the de facto video standard of the web.
Whilst most users are waiting for an alternative to the patent-encumbered H.264, Theora 1.0 or 1.1 is sadly not it. This does not mean that Theora 1.2+ will not be credible alternatives in the coming years, but at the moment it has a long way before it can soundly gain traction amongst video hosts. Until paying royalties are hurting video hosts' pockets moreso than the bandwidth costs of similar quality Theora file, they will continue to use H.264. Theora developers have to work on bringing an equivalent of Firefox 1.0 to the IE6 fight and not the Mozilla Suite.
About the author:
I am a web developer who has been following the H.264 vs Theora debate from the sidelines.