In 2010, Google heartened supporters of open source software when it confirmed that it would make the VP8 video codec technology, acquired a year earlier through its purchase of On2, available on a royalty-free basis. In so doing, it offered an alternative to the patent-encumbered H.264 video standard backed by Apple and Microsoft.
Google's announcement was made at its 2010 developer conference, Google I/O, and Mike Shaver, then VP of engineering at Mozilla, appeared briefly on stage to herald Google's $120 million gift as a boon to those who support open standards.
Almost two years later, Mozilla has grown tired of waiting for its white knight, Google, to drop support for H.264 and throw its full weight behind open source WebM, which packages VP8 video with Vorbis audio.
Because it has resisted implementing support for H.264 video in Firefox, Mozilla has relied on Adobe Flash as a fallback technology to take over when Firefox provides no native support for H.264. But with Adobe's abandonment of Flash on mobile devices, Mozilla has run out of options. Short of a Google-backed, all-out war on H.264--which isn't going to happen--Mozilla needs to find a way to make H.264 video work in Firefox for mobile.
In a blog post, CTO Brendan Eich characterized the Web video battle as lost.
"H.264 is absolutely required right now to compete on mobile," Eich wrote. "I do not believe that we can reject H.264 content in Firefox on Android or in B2G and survive the shift to mobile."
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This does not mean that Mozilla will have to start charging for Firefox to afford the patent licensing fees that many believe will come with distributing H.264 browser code. Eich stated flatly that Mozilla will not force people to pay for Firefox.
Eich said he favors a plan, put forth by Mozilla research director Andreas Gal, to rely on the OS- and hardware-based H.264 decoding capabilities that are built into Android and will be in B2G, Mozilla's Web-based operating system-in-progress. Presumably, this puts Google, as the developer of Android and makers of plug-ins that provide H.264 support, on the hook if and when the patent attorneys come knocking.
Eich said that while he hates software patents, software isn't the issue on mobile: H.264 is built into mobile hardware now and support for WebM in hardware isn't coming soon enough to be relevant this year or next.
"Losing a battle is a bitter experience," Eich conceded. "I won't sugar-coat this pill. But we must swallow it if we are to succeed in our mobile initiatives. Failure on mobile is too likely to consign Mozilla to decline and irrelevance."
Eich concluded with a rallying cry, urging that the emerging WebRTC standard for real-time communications is kept unencumbered by patents.
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