posted by Thom Holwerda on Wed 2nd Feb 2011 16:50 UTC
IconMicrosoft did two things today. First, it released an H.264 plugin for HTML5 video for Google's Chrome web browser which makes use of Media Foundation. The usefulness of this plugin is limited, however, since it's only for Windows 7 users. Much more interesting is that Microsoft has opened the door to out-of-the-box WebM/VP8 support in Internet Explorer 9.

Plugin for Chrome on Windows 7

Let's start with the plugin, just to get it out of the way. Like its Firefox counterpart, it allows Chrome to play H.264 content wrapped in the HTML5 video tag using the native Media Foundation codec included in Windows. Also like its Firefox counterpart, it's only available for Windows 7 users, greatly limiting its usefulness.

"Today, as part of the interoperability bridges work we do on this team, we are making available the Windows Media Player HTML5 Extension for Chrome, which is an extension for Google Chrome to enable Windows 7 customers who use Chrome to continue to play H.264 video," details Claudio Caldato, principal program manager at Microsoft's Interoperability Strategy Team, "We believe that Windows customers should be able to play mainstream HTML5 video and, as we've described in previous posts, Internet Explorer 9 will support playback of H.264 video as well as VP8 video when the user has installed a VP8 codec."

Much more interesting is a post on Microsoft's Internet Explorer Blog, written by Dean Hachamovitch, corporate vice president of Internet Explorer, which seems to open the door a little bit towards future out-of-the-box support for WebM/VP8 in Internet Explorer 9, which would put WebM at the same level of support as H.264. In the post, Microsoft covers several concerns it deems key to WebM/VP8's viability as a codec for HTML5 video. It also details that Microsoft has been helping Google in making sure WebM/VP8 performs great on Windows.

Working together with Google

I'm quite excited about the cooperation between Google and Microsoft, as it shows that Microsoft is open to WebM/VP8, out-of-the-box or otherwise, which is good news for those of us caring about the openness of the web. H.264 proponents such as Ars' Peter Bright and John Gruber won't be so happy with this news, as it undermines their hopes for a web shackled to H.264, a proprietary, closed and patented technology overseen by a known patent troll.

"Our commitment to play WebM videos in IE9 for users who have installed WebM demonstrates our approach," Hachamovitch writes, "We have worked closely with Google to help them deliver a WebM implementation on Windows and Google engineers are on the Microsoft campus this week; we appreciate their positive feedback to date around this work."

This indicates to me that there is close cooperation between Google and Microsoft, with Google's ultimate goal being the inclusion of WebM/VP8 in Internet Explorer 9. This belief is further strengthened by the rest of the blog post, which posits three concerns regarding WebM/VP8 Microsoft deems valid. Hachamovitch addresses these concerns in the blog post, and even offers a few olive branches.

Three Concerns

The three concerns listed by Microsoft sound valid, but conveniently enough, the Redmond company does omit a few very important details - which is sad because most of the post is quite valid and constructive.

First, Microsoft wonders "who bears the liability and risk for intellectual property?" This is a question that has been raised quite a few times, but most of the time, it was raised by the MPEG-LA itself. This organisation has been lobbing threats into the video community for over a decade now, but has never been able to substantiate any of these claims. I'm fairly certain Google's due diligence has ensured no MPEG-LA patents were infringed upon; on top of that, WebM's source code has been out for a long time now, yet nobody has been able to find anything.

Then there's the threat of unknown patent holders. This threat is definitely real, but here's the real kicker, the thing nor Hachamovitch nor H.264 proponents ever mention: these patents threaten H.264 just as much as they do WebM/VP8. Buying a license from the MPEG-LA in no way indemnifies you from these possible unknown patents.

Still, Microsoft would like to see a patent indemnification from Google (even if the MPEG-LA doesn't give you one), and is willing to give something in return. "To make it clear that we are fully willing to participate in a resolution of these issues, Microsoft is willing to commit that we will never assert any patents on VP8 if Google will make a commitment to indemnify us and all other developers and customers who use VP8 in the future. We would only ask that we be able to use those patent rights if we are sued first by somebody else," Hachamovitch states, "If Google would prefer a patent pool approach, then we would also agree to join a patent pool for VP8 on reasonable licensing terms so long as Google joins the pool and is able to include all other major providers of playback software and devices."

Second, Microsoft wonders "when and how does Google make room for the Open Web Standards community to engage genuinely?" This is a very valid concern, and I hope Google is addressing this one. The source code to WebM is currently considered to be the 'standard', and it's developed by Google. It would be wise for Google to hand over governance of WebM to the community, and turn it into a proper open standard by submitting it to standards bodies.

However, here's yet another kicker, another one nor Hachamovitch nor H.264 proponents ever mention: despite claims to the contrary, H.264 is not necessarily an open standard either. You see, many important bodies consider being royalty-free a key component of the definition of open standard, such as the European Union, the Open Source Initiative, and heck, even Microsoft itself. In other words, complaining that WebM isn't "open" is valid but moot when compared to H.264, which isn't open either.

Still, this little lie of omission doesn't negate Microsoft's point, which is a valid one. Open source, not patent encumbered, and royalty-free is great, but turning WebM over to the community would be even better - if only to shut up the Grubers and Brights of this world.

Another lie of omission in this blog post, and indeed in just about any pro-H.264 article, is the fact that the W3C cannot accept H.264 as part of any web standard, since W3C requires everything to be royalty-free. This is a very important detail that I can't reiterate often enough. People like Gruber brag about the importance of web standards compliance, and lament anyone who doesn't, yet when it is inconvenient for them to follow these same standards, they will disregard them without second thought.

The last concern raised by Microsoft is also valid, and deals with hardware support for WebM and VP8: "what is the plan for restoring consistency across devices, web services, and the PC?" Here, too, Microsoft is being rather disingenuous by omitting several important facts.

First, support by hardware makers for WebM is massive. Every major chip maker except for Intel has committed themselves to supporting WebM in their devices, and many of them will release chips with VP8 encode and decode support starting in the first quarter of this year. Since moving the web over to WebM has always been a process with a time frame of a few years, I'd say Google and chip makers are right on schedule.

Opening that damn door

While Microsoft's blog post is filled with lies of omission (is that even possible? Filing something with stuff that's omitted?), the concerns raised are still valid and need to be addressed by Google. My personal guess is that, considering the apparently close cooperation between the two companies on the issue of HTML5 video, Google is well aware of these concerns, and is busy addressing them together with Microsoft. This blog post is probably Microsoft's attempt to put some pressure on Google to speed everything up.

So yes, contrary to how other sites are reporting this, I genuinely believe that Google and Microsoft are working towards bringing out-of-the-box support for WebM to Internet Explorer 9. There's things to be gained here for both companies: Google gets incredibly wide support for its new format, while Microsoft gets to brag about having the only browser that supports both. It would also create considerable goodwill for the company, which is something it needs now more than ever, with IE's share dropping like a brick on Monday.

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