The HTML5 video battle: Part II

This is a quick update to yesterday’s post titled “Google opens the VP8 Codec“.  In that post I described the lay of the land for current software developers interested in the online video space, the battle around which codec will become the defacto standard for HTML5 video, and what it all means for us.

Almost as soon as I posted, it needed updating – the news is coming quick and fast.  All of the involved companies seem to realise that this is a major turning point in the web and they all want it going their way.  Most of the contenders realise that they themselves don’t have the sway to push this issue by themselves and it is quickly devolving into a fight between two camps.  Team Google, and Team Apple, with two different technologies and two completely opposed philosophical outlooks on the way the technology world should work.

In my previous post I accidental missed one of the contenders here, as they are really of only tangential influence in the current debate.  To summarise once more, the five players in this drama are Apple, Google, Microsoft, the Mozilla foundation and Opera Software – each has its own browser with its own dedicated followers and a greater or smaller percentage of the overall browser market: Safari, Chrome, Internet Explorer, Firefox and Opera.

To catch up on the basics of the issues, please view my last post – we will now deal with the rapidly changing landscape and how it already differs from what I laid out yesterday.  There is no doubt that everyone was waiting for this announcement from Google, given the speed that the other players have made their responses.

To start, Firefox and Opera both supported the Ogg Theora codec as the default (and only) HTML5 video codec.  Mozilla have been very vocal on this point, routinely calling for support in preventing H.264 from becoming a patent encumbered defacto standard.  It was announced yesterday that current developer editions, from the nightly builds, of Firefox and Opera also support VP8 – throwing their weight behind Google and the newly opened codec.

These three then, Firefox, Opera and Chrome, represent a majority amount of the browser marketplace.  According to the W3 Schools market share report, these three contenders represent 62.2% of the Browser market share.

It is no surprise then that Microsoft, despite reservations, announced support for VP8 in Internet Explorer 8.  Not native support, it must be said, however they have stated that anyone who has the VP8 codec installed themselves will be able to view VP8 video via the HTML5 video tag in IE8.  This to me is a very defensive position for Microsoft, obviously they’re still worried about patent attacks and so don’t want to bundle a potentially encumbered codec with their own browser.  However this move also shows that they realise they can’t ignore the potential of VP8 to break through H.264’s stranglehold and become the web standard.  They can’t decide which camp to bet on, so they’re betting both.

Whilst native support would have been better, this is still a partial win for VP8 supporters and raises the total Browser market share of VP8 compatible browsers to 78.4%, assuming that VP8 support will be coming only for IE8.  This is a near overwhelming victory, as the remaining market-share is split between IE7 and 6, who combined equal about 17.2% of the market share (hands up if you can’t believe that IE6 still commands 7.9%.  Upgrade people!) and Safari, the last remaining hold-out, with a tiny market share of only 3.7%.

Given that IE7 and 6 are unlikely to be upgraded at all for HTML5 support, we can effectively count out 17.2% of the market from this discussion – they’re unlikely to get any codec until they upgrade. So only 82.1% of the market are actually involved in this discussion at all. What this means then is for all the people who will be able to access HTML5 video, 95.4% will be able to access VP8 (either natively or by installing the codec themselves).The 4.5% using Safari will be the only ones who cannot.

Compare this to Ogg Theora, supported by only Firefox, Chrome and Opera, and you have a potential market of 75% of the browser market.  Still a goodly amount, but you’re missing anyone using Safari or Internet Explorer.

H.264 is supported by Chrome, Safari and Internet Explorer.  This is the only codec safari users can see and is supported by only 40% of the potential marketplace.

Numbers like this would normally mean that VP8 was a clear winner already and the battle was over before it began, H.264 is a no-starter.  What does Apple and the mighty Steve Jobs have to say about this?

According to an article at The Register: VP8 is a bad choice because it will be liable to the same attacks as Ogg Theora on the patent front, and it performs slower and with worse compression than H.264.  Their evidence for the poor performance?  As linked in the article, a paper written by college student supporter of H.264 and contributor to an open source decoder of same, who claims VP8 performs poorly and will not rival H.264 in any way, and the spec is poor and unlikely to be corrected by Google.

This is the reality distortion field in full effect and it will be interesting to see the Jobs supporters rally behind this particular piece of FUD.  I am not qualified personally to judge the quality of VP8 vs H.264.  A quick search on the net shows the world is divided between those that think it is better, those who claim it is not and those who really don’t see any difference.  I think the quality issue for web video is itself a non-starter, the 95% support ratio would, under normal circumstances, push that aside as it has in technological battles before.  Quality of tech generally comes second to ease of use and compatibility with content.  If all the sites you like use VP8, you’re unlikely to care that H.264 is better.

That said, this move shows the supreme arrogance of the Apple community.  What Jobs is saying with a one line email is that we believe VP8 is no threat because a college student said so.  Now this college student might be the worlds best video codec analyst, but… how is anyone to know? One college student’s opinion versus Google’s engineers, On2’s original developers, and every other person who has played with the tech and pronounced it good.

Enough on that, as I said, it’s likely a non-issue.  The real issue is that Apple is holding firm – no VP8 support, H.264 only.  What does this mean for us?

I’d love to call this one for VP8 with overwhelming support, Google standing behind it stating they are completely unafraid of potential patent trolls and 95% of the available market supporting the codec.

We can’t though.  Apple, despite having only a 3.3% share of the browser market, has a 100% share of the iPhone market.  With no support for Flash, currently H.264 is the only way to get video to those devices.  Sure, overall this portion of the market is relatively small, and Android will no doubt have VP8 support – but the issue is this.  This battle will, in the end, be decided by us.  The developers.  If the majority of sites go VP8 as the defacto standard, Apple will more and more feel the pressure to include support for it in the iPhone Safari client as the iPhone users get more and more frustrated at their inability to view those sites.

The question remaining is how many developers are willing to cut out such a, some would say inordinately visible, section of their market?  iPhone uptake is pushing many of the larger sites towards HTML5, and with that as their driver they are unlikely to choose a video codec that the iPhone doesn’t support.

The battle is far from over everyone, and we still can’t call a winner here.  Don’t doubt for a second that Jobs understands the mindshare and brand power he wields with his “magical” devices, and don’t doubt that he will use every ounce of leverage he has to make the world conform to his reality distortion field.

I will continue to update as more news comes in, however for now I think my previous advice still stands.  The safest route is H.264 with a Flash backup for Opera and Firefox who don’t support it.

My preferred option? I have to say i’m weighing in with VP8 here.  I had really thought we’d left behind the time when we coded the same page in different ways to cater for differences in browsers.  We need a standard web, and that means, a standard video codec.

Thoughts anyone? Have I missed anything or am I just plain nuts? Let me know in the comments.


7 thoughts on “The HTML5 video battle: Part II

  1. I think the whole “it’s worse than the best h264 profile” argument is a stupid one if you consider that it’s also as good as the baseline h264 profile. Why? Because that means that while it’s sufficient for web video, it’s not so competitive with h264 that there’s a real legal reason to pursue it over patents. I know it’s still going to happen, because our patent system is insane, but there is sensible case that can be brought against VP8.. it’s never going to be as good as h264, only “good enough” and “far less threatening”.

  2. An interesting kettle of squid.

    I’m of the opinion that developers are only one factor in the equation. Users, and what devices they use, will have a large impact on codec usage numbers.

    The general consensus among those who keep an eye on these things is that VP8 is a modern codec with near-enough performance and quality to H.264. There aren’t enough technical reasons not to adopt it. It seems “good enough”.

    However, if the two competing codecs are near enough, it won’t be things like quality or performance that will drive usage, it will be what content developers use, and what device users access that content with that’ll determine what codec is used.

    If Apple doesn’t support VP8 and VP8 becomes a success without their support, then it won’t matter whether Apple decide to support them or not. Expect Apple to support it if it becomes important enough to their bottom line. That is, if they’re no longer wildly profitable and lack of VP8 support is a major cause of that, you’ll see them supporting it.

    If, however, VP8 doesn’t become a success, they’ll never touch it.

    I have two thoughts, there. First, if Apple (by not supporting the codec) can cause VP8 to fail… well, wow. A lot of power they have there. Also a lot of users that just don’t give a rats arse about codecs and/or freedom.

    The second thought is that I like competition. I think iPhone OS users should be able to purchase apps from app stores other than Apple’s. I also think that users should be able to install any browser they like (on any device), and should be able to install and use any codec they like. I like H.264 – I think it’s technically wonderful. Much better than Sorenson ever was. I also have great hopes for VP8.

    Why not have both competing against each other? Driving each other to improve? If VP8 is massively successful (say, 50% market share), won’t that drive the MPEG consortium to continue to keep their licensing regime reasonable? Or start charging less? Can’t a powerful and modern open codec, driven by Google, cause an existing competitor to cease to rest on their laurels?

    I don’t find myself particularly scared for the future, or even very angry. May the best outfit win, I say!

  3. I think we have to be careful about claims that Apple can’t cause this codec to fail. Logic says they can’t, it has a 95% browser market backing as opposed to their 3.3% market share – but consider this.

    According to the latest numbers, the Android OS has made significant advances and actually eclipsed the iPhone in terms of pure market share. That is to say, there are more people using Android smart phones in the current market than there are people with iPhones.

    This is what the statistics say – but it doesn’t match most people’s conceptual understanding of the state of the mobile market. Apple has a huge monopoly on the mobile mindshare, so despite the actual numbers, when the common consumer thinks mobile, they’re thinking iPhone and iPad, not Android.

    The Apple Reality Distortion Field, a well known phenomena (and well publicised, thanks in part to The Register 😉 ) should not be underestimated. Within moments of Steve Jobs making an announcement, his legions of unpaid fanatical fans hit the blogs with defences, praise and parrot noises. This affects even the mainstream media, resulting in publicity that the Google, with its Android line, has been unable to match.

    This is not a criticism of Apple, let me make it clear. Their marketing has been phenomenal for these devices and their success is well deserved. However it does mean that Apple as a company are punching well above their weight when it comes to the pull they can exert on the structure of the web versus the pull they -should- be able to exert given their rather small market share.

    For evidence of this we should look to the recent spate of HTML5 uptake, particularly in the big media sites. Many sites lately have announced the switch (with Hulu as a notable, and loud, exception) -specifically- to cater for iPhone and iPad. If they’re willing to restructure for this small but vocal segment of the market, it’s also almost a given they’re willing to side with H.264 over VP8 for as long as Apple refuses to support it. This gives them an influence that is far greater than the numbers would seem to suggest.

    As for competition, there is nothing inherently wrong with competition. It leads to healthy growth in features and reduction in cost in most products. HOWEVER, what we will see in this case is not competition but fragmentation. We have some browsers refusing to support H.264 and some refusing to support VP8, resulting in an impossible situation where you cannot, with a single implementation, reach all possible web customers.

    Anyone who was web programming in the 90’s and the early part of this decade will know all too well the hell and pain that this situation will bring to web developers, and the frustration it will bring to users.

    There is no easy solution for this particular situation either. If you go with VP8 you reach 95% of the market. Seems simple. However the relatively small percent of the market made up by Mac Safari users, iPhone and iPad users, is a very visible and vocal segment. Not only do many developers want to reach these users for the sake of reaching them, but many clients and executives will want to reach this highly publicised market segment. A solution that excludes them will be a very hard sell.

    On the other hand, if you go with H.264 you’re excluding Firefox and Opera, which together account for nearly 50% of the browser market! You’re reaching the desired iPhone and iPad users, but now your excluding more than half your potential visitors. Again, not a palatable solution.

    The only way this “competition” could be healthy would be to include both H.264 and VP8 on all browsers, so that developers would be free to choose based on the technical merits alone, not market considerations. Google is so far the only company willing to take this approach, offering support for all three possible solutions (H.264, VP8 and Ogg Theora). Microsoft has come close with its defensive stance, but you still end up with a massive fragmentation with Mozilla and their religious-like devotion to “open and patent free”, and Apple with their religious-like devotion to “lord Jobs”.

    We’re never going to see Mozilla embrace patent-encumbered software, and for reasons I completely understand. We’re unlikely to see Apple change their mind unless forced to by the bottom-line, as you pointed out.

    So that leaves me hoping for a VP8 victory, for the sake of all the poor web developers who will have to support this mess otherwise.

    But i’m not laying down any bets.

    • Apple has always had legions of fans, and it didn’t help them during the early nineties. Are you sure you’re not overestimating them?

      Steve Jobs seems generally to dislike second-best quality. If he remains convinced that H.264 is the best way of doing things, you’ll probably see Apple stay the way they are. He’s never really been a fan of offering more than one way to do something.

      Actually, that’s his Apple in a nutshell. 100% commitment to a single way of doing things, and try to polish that one thing to a spit-shine. The other methods can go hang. Everyone else offers a myriad of ways to do something. Some people like Apple’s way. Some people like the other way.

      By the way, I’d be very cautious about seeing Google as some kind of open saviour. They’re a business, just like Apple, and are showing themselves to be just as self-interested and ruthless. I think we’ll see this turn into a dogfight really soon now.

  4. There’s definitely no “angel” quality to Google, their stated goal of “Do no evil” is a pretty open joke in the industry these days.

    However, the way they treat developers and users is far more benign than Apple’s method (other than in the privacy space.) Apple’s heavy handed, “Drink-the-kool-aid-or-leave” approach does tend to leave a bad taste in the mouths of many developers and users, despite the unargued quality of their products.

    And this isn’t the 90’s Dave, if you don’t think Apple’s PR machine, driven in a large part by its devoted fan base, is an important factor in today’s evolving tech space then you’re not reading the same news sources as I am 😉

    • Granted, I think, on reflection, yes. 🙂 I wonder why they’re (I confess, that should read “we’re”) so fanatical?

  5. Apple have done a wonderful job of building not just a technology, or a platform, but an entire culture around their products. You can see it in everything from their social events (dev conferences, announcements, etc), to their documentation, to the physical design of their products themselves.

    Apple technology is one of only two I can think of that has become a “way of life” for many of its users, rather than simply a tool that is used (in the case of Microsoft’s products.)

    I think in some ways Google has tried to emulate this. I wouldn’t be surprised that their habit of offering “invite only” betas of products like gmail and wave are a way of promoting the same “elite and exclusive” feeling that Apple products can evoke. To a degree it has worked, but in no-way approaching the same level.

    The other group you see this in is fanatical Linux users (which, I must confess, I used to be once.) I think perhaps the oppressed underdog image that Apple used to have (and Linux still does) brings their communities closer than otherwise would, and helps foster the development of these cultures based on shared ideology.

    The difference is, today, that outside of the tech industry itself, very few can appreciate or understand the drive that possess fanatical Linux users. Whilst Apple is now the most mainstream of mainstream, and its culture is far more influential than it used to be.

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