The great video debate
If it is so easy to embed a photograph into a web page, why is it so difficult to embed a video? And is it about to get easier?
Artwork and photographs have been integrated into web pages for as long as most people can remember. Early in the history of HTML, long before Apple and Microsoft became involved, web designers and browser builders came to an understanding that just two formats were needed for web graphics, those being GIF and JPEG. People with vested interests in other formats argued their case but GIF and JPEG became the de facto standards. With video, it has never been that clear cut, and there are even more formats and more people with vested interests and patents trying to make us see the world their way.
Currently, video in web pages is a bit of a mess. Sometimes you click on a video and it plays right there in the page, like it does with YouTube, and sometimes it downloads a file and opens Windows Media player. Sometimes it might try to open RealPlayer instead, or perhaps it will try to open the file but tell you that your machine doesn't have the right "codec" installed for the file format, or perhaps you will get audio only and no video. YouTube is a good example of how to get it right, but even they have to support different formats for mobiles and have announced they will soon be withdrawing support for IE6 users.
So what video format should we be using? Microsoft would like us all to use Windows Media format whilst Apple wants us to use Quicktime. Adobe would prefer us all to use its Flash Video but that doesn't work on Apple's iPhone or iPad or on machines without the right plug-ins installed. Microsoft is developing its own format, Silverlight, to compete with Flash, but this will probably be limited to Internet Explorer users only. There are video formats which seem to work on all machines, such as MJPEG (Moving JPEG), but the file size of MJPEG is huge. In addition there are advanced formats like DIRAC, created by the BBC for its video streaming service, and yet other formats used on DVDs.
With the development of HTML5, the next incarnation of the web design language, the developers want to introduce commands to standardise embedding of video within the page and hopefully get a consensus on at least one common video format supported by all browsers, just like all browsers agree to support GIF and JPEG. One proposal has been to use the OGG V3 format, developed by On2 Technologies which wrote some of the key components of the YouTube service. OGG V3 has been in the public domain since 2001 and hence browser makers could include it without incurring license fees. Against that, the age of the format means its performance and compression doesn't match the modern offerings.
On2 continued to develop its OGG format since 2001, but didn't put later versions into the public domain so it has remained largely ignored. However, Google has just purchased On2 Technologies for the sum of $125 million. The big question now is will Google, now that it owns the OGG format, generously put the latest version of OGG into the public domain, license-fee free, and if so, will the browser makers all agree to standardise on it.
On the one hand, hopes are high. If we had a universally accepted video format then that wouldn't just affect web pages. Hopefully we would see video cameras using it as a format, just like today's photo cameras use JPEG as the picture format. Likewise with software where all word processor software allows you to import JPEG photos into your documents. Standardisation brings huge benefits. On the other hand, it is hard to see Apple and Microsoft agreeing to give up on their own formats.
For years we have had the theoretical ability to use specialist fonts in web pages and not be limited to just those installed on the user's machine, but still the browser makers will not agree on a common format, Microsoft sticks to its own proprietary format that works only in Windows Explorer, and the feature remains unusable. If these people cannot all agree on a simple font format, what chance is there of them agreeing on a video format?
26th February 2010
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