posted by Kroc Camen on Thu 29th Apr 2010 23:04 UTC
IconI am almost flabbergasted by the spin and blunt-face upon which this news is delivered. We were just discussing the pot calling the kettle black with Apple / Adobe and now Microsoft have also come out in favour of a closed video format for an open web--IE9's HTML5 video support will allow H264 only. Update Now that the initial shock is over, I've rewritten the article to actually represent news rather than something on Twitter.

With IE9 Microsoft have initiated a drive to bring IE into the 21st Century and even in some places outdo their competitors, following years and IE stagnation and lackluster updates compared to features available in all other major browsers. Notably important is fast SVG, a new JavaScript engine to rival the other JIT engines in other browsers and importantly, HTML5 support.

HTML5’s features are rather broad so whilst no word on HTML5 Canvas has been mentioned yet, Microsoft did commit to HTML5 Audio and Video which were demonstrated at their developer’s conference MIX10. A preview release of the new rendering engine was made available, but this release was not the same build as demoed at MIX and didn’t include HTML5 Audio and Video.

It was always obvious that H.264 support would be part of it, but some developers assumed that the sensible option for Microsoft would have been to let IE access DirectShow (Window’s media platform, much like QuickTime on Mac) so that any codecs installed on the system would be available for use. Since Windows 7 Microsoft have included H.264 and DivX codecs by default. Vista added MPEG-2 support which was absent from Windows XP.

To a certain extent, Apple use this method by transmogrifying HTML5 video tags into QuckTime elements in Safari so that QuickTime handles the media and thus anything QuickTime can play, so can Safari, including additional installed codecs via the likes of Perian.

What is so blunt in Microsoft’s announcement that they will support H.264 only in HTML5 video is the pure Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt of “other codecs” they portray.

Other codecs often come up in these discussions. The distinction between the availability of source code and the ownership of the intellectual property in that available source code is critical. Today, intellectual property rights for H.264 are broadly available through a well-defined program managed by MPEG LA. The rights to other codecs are often less clear, as has been described in the press.

Microsoft do not once substantiate in their post what codecs they are referring to, what isn’t clear about said codec’s licencing and what press have said anything about this. Microsoft seem to be implying that H.264 is the only safe and reliable codec. Microsoft said that the availability of source code and ownership of IP right is critical but then fail to substatiate that statement by either mentioning source code at all (the source code to Microsoft’s H264 implementation and of IE itself is not open) or the ownership of rights befalls anywhere else than with the MPEG-LA (and not, for example with the user, like with open source codecs like Theora).

So how is H.264 in any way critically related to open source and rights ownership (of IP in that source)? H.264 is proprietary and closed and the rights are locked away behind MPEG-LA’s doors.

If that alone wasn’t bad blogging / journalism, then the fact that Microsoft did not once mention that they themselves are a patent licensor for the MPEG-LA is much worse. Microsoft own part of the pool of patents that make up the H.264 codec. This means that it is their express interest that people pay for H.264 licences as this pays into their back pocket via the MPEG-LA.

This is a defraudment of developers, monopoly abuse—using their monopoly with IE to direct business to the MPEG-LA of which Microsoft will profit. Absolutely shocking, and no mention of this shocking bias is made in their announcement.

The selective information masking their bias continues with this statement:

Of course, developers can rely on the H.264 codec and hardware acceleration support of the underlying operating system, like Windows 7, without paying any additional royalty.

But Window’s licence for H.264 is for non-commerical use for decoding by consumers. You will need to purchase a licence for developers (content-creators, not consumers) to encode H.264 content. Had they said “Of course, consumers can rely…” there would be no problem, but Microsoft are masking the fact that H.264 licencing is not free and is not transferable—just because you have a decoder on your machine, doesn’t mean it’s licenced correctly for the use you intend. This is the case even with professional software like Final Cut Pro, that does not come with a commercial use licence for H.264!

The MPEG-LA have made it clear that if you don’t get your licencing right and pay their protection money, they will come after you.

This is genuinely frightening. Not the coming-after-you bit, but that a proprietary, patent riddled video codec could become the de-facto standard on the web.

Would YouTube have ever taken off, if they had to pay the MPEG-LA for every time a video was watched by somebody? Imagine the web without YouTube. For one, we wouldn’t have a new yardstick for poor quality comments on the Internet, sure, but at the same time we wouldn’t have so much amateur content being produced, and we wouldn’t have had so much demand for video that ISPs were forced to catch up, and that would have meant that things like Hulu may never have come into existence, because neither the infrastructure, nor the demand would have been there.

Microsoft are helping to put to a stop any innovation around video on the web. No new business models surrounding videos will be allowed unless they get paid for it. This will simply prevent innovation from happening in the first place. Microsoft’s decision will genuinely affect every web user for the next 10 years.

What proof do I have for that? None. Because Microsoft have severely crippled the chance that any such proof will ever come to exist. We will never know what innovation we will have missed out on because of an open web cemented around a closed video format.

This is a sad day for the Internet. For shame Microsoft, for shame.

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