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Point and Laugh: The End of WebM

As hinted last week, Mozilla has finally seen the writing on the wall and decided to support H.264 in the <video> tag in Firefox. Probably inevitable given that

  1. Mozilla is making a new push into mobile
  2. The default standard for web video has become H.264 <video> for mobile and Flash for the desktop
  3. Adobe is abandoning Flash for mobile

Taken together, these three points mean that continuing to reject H.264 <video> (and implicitly depend on Flash to support the video content that actually exists in the wild) might well leave mobile Firefox unable to play any meaningful amount of video at all. And certainly somebody somewhere must have realized that H.264 is the most popular encoding format within Flash movies, meaning that Mozilla’s attempt to push developers into other codecs simply wasn’t working.

Not that <video> is a cure-all; Streaming Media’s Jan Ozer makes the case that it’s not there, and probably never will be, at least not for non-trivial uses.

But as Streaming Media’s Troy Dreier points out in today’s article, at least this will rid us of the distraction of WebM: “This move drives a major nail in the WebM coffin, making WebM only slightly more relevant than Ogg Theora.”

Google fans among my Tweeps and +1’ers argue that WebM only failed because Google didn’t push it hard enough, but I think they’re wrong: WebM was always a dumb idea, one whose only advantage was political correctness among a holier-than-thou group of developers, few of whom had particularly deep knowledge of digital media beyond patent and licensing politics. Looking back at my earlier anti-WebM screed, my only regret is not slamming it even harder than I did.

Guess it’s just as well that I never created an webm category on the blog… turns out I wouldn’t ever need it.

A Bit O’ Honey

Today’s announcement of the new features in Android 3.0 (Honeycomb) showed a feature I truly didn’t expect to see: support for HTTP Live Streaming.

Given Google’s decision to drop H.264 support from Chrome – a move that I denounced a few weeks back and would simply characterize here as batshit crazy – the idea of embracing HLS has to be seen as surprising, given that the MPEG codecs are the only commonly-used payloads in real-world HLS. The format could handle other payloads, but in practice, it’s all about the MP4s.

And that, of course, is because the target audience for HLS is iOS devices. Apple says they have an installed base of 160 million iOS devices out there now, and even the earliest iPhone can play an HLS stream. Moreover, App Store terms require the use of HLS for non-trivial streaming video applications. So there’s more and more content out there in this format. Android is wise to hop on this bandwagon, and opt in… unless of course they turn around and expect content providers to switch to WebM payloads (one would hope they’re not that dumb).

I don’t think I’d previously thought of the iOS base as a target for media providers, but found myself thinking: could the iOS base be bigger than Blu-Ray? A little searching shows it’s not even close: as of last Summer, Blu-Ray had a US installed base of just under 20 million, while iOS devices of all stripes number 40 million in the US (coincidentally making it the largest US mobile gaming platform as well). And while Blu-Ray had a good Christmas, iPad sales were insane.

Not every iOS user is going to stream video, and most content providers will need to develop custom apps to use the feature (Netflix, MLB, etc.), but those that do are already making big investments in the format. No wonder Google is opting in now… trying to get all the content providers to support an Android-specific format (other than Flash) would surely be a non-starter.

Now if Apple and the content providers could just work the kinks out…

An Encoder Is Not A State Machine

I’m pleasantly surprised that Google’s removal of H.264 from Chrome in favor of WebM has been greeted with widespread skepticism. You’d think that removing popular and important functionality from a shipping product would be met with scorn, but when Google wraps itself with the “open” buzzword, they often seem to get a pass.

Ars Technica’s Google’s dropping H.264 from Chrome a step backward for openness has been much cited as a strong argument against the move. It makes the important point that video codecs extend far beyond the web, and that H.264’s deep adoption in satellite, cable, physical media, and small devices make it clearly inextricable, no matter how popular WebM might get on the web (which, thusfar, is not much). It concludes that this move makes Flash more valuable and viable as a fallback position.

And while I agree with all of this, I still find that most of the discussion has been written from the software developer’s point of view. And that’s a huge mistake, because it overlooks the people who are actually using video codecs: content producers and distributors.

And have they been clamoring for a new codec? One that is more “open”? No, no they have not. As Streaming Media columnist Jan Ozer laments in Welcome to the Two-Codec World,

I also know that whatever leverage Google uses, they still haven’t created any positive reason to distribute video in WebM format. They haven’t created any new revenue opportunities, opened any new markets or increased the size of the pie. They’ve just made it more expensive to get your share, all in the highly ethereal pursuit of “open codec technologies.” So, if you do check your wallet, sometime soon, you’ll start to see less money in it, courtesy of Google.

I’m grateful that Ozer has called out the vapidity of WebM proponents gushing about the “openness” of the VP8 codec. It reminds me of John Gruber’s jab (regarding Android) that Google was “drunk on its own keyword”. What’s most atrocious to me about VP8 is that open-source has trumped clarity, implementability, and standardization. VP8 apparently only exists as a code-base, not as a technical standard that could, at least in theory, be re-implemented by a third party. As the much-cited first in-depth technical analysis of VP8 said:

The spec consists largely of C code copy-pasted from the VP8 source code — up to and including TODOs, “optimizations”, and even C-specific hacks, such as workarounds for the undefined behavior of signed right shift on negative numbers. In many places it is simply outright opaque. Copy-pasted C code is not a spec. I may have complained about the H.264 spec being overly verbose, but at least it’s precise. The VP8 spec, by comparison, is imprecise, unclear, and overly short, leaving many portions of the format very vaguely explained. Some parts even explicitly refuse to fully explain a particular feature, pointing to highly-optimized, nigh-impossible-to-understand reference code for an explanation. There’s no way in hell anyone could write a decoder solely with this spec alone.

Remember that even Microsoft’s VC-1 was presented and ratified as an actual SMPTE standard. One can also contrast the slop of code that is VP8 with the strategic designs of MPEG with all their codecs, standardizing decoding while permitting any encoder that produces a compliant stream that plays on the reference decoder.

This matters because of something that developers have a hard time grasping: an encoder is not a state machine. Meaning that there need not, and probably should not be, a single base encoder. An obvious example of this is the various use cases for video. A DVD or Blu-Ray disc is encoded once and played thousands or millions of times. In this scenario, it is perfectly acceptable for the encode process to require expensive hardware, a long encode time, a professional encoder, and so on, since those costs are easily recouped and are only needed once. By contrast, video used in a video-conferencing style application requires fairly modest hardware, real-time encoding, and can make few if any demands of the user. Under the MPEG-LA game-plan, the market optimizes for both of these use cases. But when there is no standard other than the code, it is highly unlikely that any implementations will vary much from that code.

Developers also don’t understand that professional encoding is something of an art, that codecs and different encoding software and hardware have distinct behaviors that can be mastered and exploited. In fact, early Blu-Ray discs were often authored with MPEG-2 rather than the more advanced H.264 and VC-1 because the encoders — both the devices and the people operating them — had deeper support for and a better understanding of MPEG-2. Assuming that VP8 is equivalent to H.264 on any technical basis overlooks these human factors, the idea that people now know how to get the most out of H.264, and have little reason to achieve a similar mastery of VP8.

Also, MPEG rightly boasts that ongoing encoder improvements over time allow for users to enjoy the same quality at progressively lower bitrates. It is not likely that VP8 can do the same, so while it may be competitive (at best) with H.264, it won’t necessarily stay that way.

Furthermore, is the MPEG-LA way really so bad? Here’s a line from a review in the Discrete Cosine blog of VP8 back when On2 was still trying to sell it as a commercial product:

On2 is advertising VP8 as an alternative to the mucky patent world of the MPEG licensing association, but that process isn’t nearly as difficult to traverse as they imply, and I doubt the costs to get a license for H.264 are significantly different than the costs to license VP8.

The great benefit of ISO standards like VC-1 and H.264 is that anyone can go get a reference encoder or reference decoder, with the full source code, and hack on their own product. When it times come to ship, they just send the MPEG-LA a dollar (or whatever) for each copy and everyone is happy.

It’s hard to understand what benefits the “openness” of VP8 will ever really provide. Even if it does end up being cheaper than licensing H.264 from MPEG-LA — and even if the licensing body would have demanded royalty payments had H.264 not been challenged by VP8 — proponents overlook the fact that the production and distribution of video is always an enormously expensive endeavor. 15 years ago, I was taught that “good video starts at a thousand dollars a minute”, and we’d expect the number is at least twice that today, just for a minimal level of technical competence. Given that, the costs of H.264 are a drop in the bucket, too small to seriously affect anyone’s behavior. And if not cost, then what else does “openness” deliver? Is there value in forking VP8, to create another even less compatible codec?

In the end, maybe what bugs me is the presumption that software developers like the brain trust at Google know what’s best for everyone else. But assuming that “open source” will be valuable to video professionals is like saying that the assembly line should be great for software development because it worked for Henry Ford.

Maybe they should call the next version of Ubuntu “Compulsive Coyote”

Fanaticism consists in redoubling your effort when you have forgotten your aim.
George Santayana, Life of Reason (1905) vol. 1, Introduction

A few weeks back, I asked the Twitterverse “When did user-facing Linux become completely and officially irrelevant? Seems like a fait accompli, doesn’t it?”. With the OSS community’s reaction to the iPad, I’m now sure of it.

And by reaction, I’m of course thinking of the response by the FSF’s John Sullivan to Steve Jobs’ much-discussed Thoughts on Flash. Sullivan’s piece is a straightforward “pox on both your houses” take, damning Apple and Adobe alike for not adopting the One True Faith of Open Source Software.

I had allowed myself to hope that the OSS community would take the hugely successful launch of the iPad and the flight of developers to the iPhone OS platform, even with Apple’s cravenly self-serving App Store policies, as an opportunity to take a good, long look in the mirror. With iPad sales now already estimated at over a million, you have to wonder how soon use of this nascent platform will exceed that of desktop Linux, if it hasn’t already. What should the open source community think of this profound preference for the unfree over the free? I would think they’d see it as a very public, and very obvious repudiation of the party line, suggestive of an urgent need for some soul-searching and time to re-examine how the OSS community is engaging the world at large.

Sullivan’s piece, sadly, shows no such self-awareness. It’s the usual total detach from real people that we’ve come to expect from True Believers. Indeed, the last third of it is the all-too-familiar zealous denunciation of all proprietary software, calling on readers to adopt Linux and Ogg Theora.

Seriously, Ogg? They’re still clinging to the “everything should be in Ogg” kick? OK, let’s ask the people who should know on this one, content professionals, to see if they buy in at all. DV magazine’s website logs 0 hits in searches for Theora and for Ogg, StreamingMedia.com’s 11 hits (versus 248 for H.264) are largely related to codec politics and not mentions in training articles or product reviews, and legendary retailer B & H assumes the search term theora is a misspelling of “theory”. No matter how many essays and insults the zealots spew forth, they seem unable to generate any inkling to know or care about Theora among video professionals.

In effect, the FSF’s position is to tell the world “screw you for not wanting the stuff we produce”, oblivious to the fact that the marketplace of ideas is very clearly telling them “screw you for not producing the stuff we want.”

The quote at the top of this article was often cited by Chuck Jones in describing the character of Wile E. Coyote, who was never afforded a moment of clarity to reconsider his hunting regimen, the inherent dangers therein, and the prospects for a way of life that didn’t involve falling off cliffs every 30 seconds. I fear the OSS community is so wrapped up in their own self-righteousness, they are similarly immune to equally-needed moments of humility, clarity, and perspective.

Already thinking about a next book

I’ve been away from the blog on a pretty grueling day-job contract. It’s actually been positive for my work on the Core Audio book: nothing encourages a side project like disliking your day job.

Squirreling away some morning hours between 5 and 9 AM over the last two weeks, I’ve managed to get first drafts of the first two chapters done (admittedly with a helpful start from the fragments left from Mike and Kevin’s initial work on the book). I actually surprised myself by finding a concretization of the Nyquist theorem, which (basically) says that to reproduce a frequency, you have to sample at at least double that rate. In chapter 2’s digital audio intro, I added an example to get readers looking at raw samples, writing out their own waves as PCM samples. An inner loop uses a samplesPerWave value, and it occurred to me that something interesting happens at the Nyquist point. If you’re sampling at 44100 Hz, then for a 22050 Hz frequency, samplesPerWave is 2. That’s the minimum for a perceivable, repeatable pattern: at a higher frequency, you have less than 2 samplesPerWave and therefore no more repeating pattern, no wave.

Not a big deal, but it was a nice little “aha” moment to stumble across.

I’m enjoying having momentum on Core Audio, and since I wrote that never-published series of articles (yep, the publisher is still wedged) on low-latency use of units and OpenAL, I’ve already worked through some of the conceptually-hardest material, so there are fewer unknowns looming ahead than normal. Which I wouldn’t have expected for Core Audio, surely the hardest topic I’ve ever written about.

I’ve found myself wondering what would be a good topic to pitch and hopefully write about in late 2010, time and budget permitting (writing for anyone other than the Prags is a financial indulgence… it most certainly does not pay the bills).

Here are a few things I’m thinking about.

  • HTTP Live Streaming – The only choice for streaming video to an iPhone OS device, and a compelling choice for streaming media in general. Would probably cover setting up your own server, working with CDNs that support it, writing your own client (if QTX or MediaPlayer.framework doesn’t work for you), encryption and DRM, etc.
  • Core Services – all the C functions that none of the introductory Cocoa books tell you you’re going to need for a serious iPhone or Mac application. Core Foundation, CFNetwork, Keychain, System Configuration, Reachability, stuff like that.
  • C for iPhone – I’ve mentioned this before, how I wrote about 100 pages of this for the Prags, and everything was fine until it wasn’t. With all the people getting into iPhone OS development without a C background and the problems of applying the very dated K&R to modern C development (especially for beginners, who won’t follow its Unixisms or its analogies to Fortran and Pascal), I still think we badly need a C intro that can serve as a prerequisite to all the iPhone books (including ours) that assume C experience. Plus, I find it a perversely fun topic to speak about (see the slides of my CodeMash session).
  • OpenAL – There’s, like, next to nothing to get beginners started with this audio technology, and what’s out there is frequently wrong or outdated (for example, some “getting started” type blog entries use the deprecated loadWAVFile that isn’t even present on iPhone OS). I’m actually thinking of a radically different format for this book, but don’t want to give it away just yet.

I was going to make this a poll, but I don’t think I have enough readers to make that viable, and all the poll plugins for WordPress suck anyways. So if you’d care to vote for one of these options, please post a comment. Besides, I’d love to have new registered users who aren’t offshored spammers.

There will likely be an update to iPhone SDK Development as well, when SDK changes warrant, but that hasn’t happened yet. Let’s see when we get a 4.0 and what’s in it.

Secret Video Attack Vector

Thinking about the iPad and the appealing idea of watching video on this device, the usual objections come up about being limited to the Apple iTunes ecosystem, and being shut out from great stuff, just like the AppleTV is.

But wait a second, there’s a second way to get video on your iPad, just like on an iPhone/iPod touch: apps can stream video. In fact, there are a bunch of these already. In many cases, the apps scratch the itch of certain niches. Apple continues to trot out the MLB app to show off crowd-pleasing baseball video, but I notice that I have downloaded at least four apps for streaming anime: Crunchyroll, Babelgum, Joost, and The Anime Network. Looking on the App Store, I see a few others, including one app that exists just as a container for the first volume of the charming His and Her Circumstances.

Let’s think here. Some of these services (Crunchyroll and Anime Network) offer Flash-based viewers on the web, but they’re not in the Flash business, they’re in the content business, so they use a different technology to get their content to iPhone OS viewers.

And what is that technology? By Apple fiat, it is HTTP Live Streaming, which Apple recently declared as the only permitted technology for streaming video to iPhone OS devices. Technically, it seems like you could also use HTML5 <video> tags in a UIWebView, but there are lots of nice reasons to use HTTP Live Streaming (content providers are probably happy to see DRM in the spec, even if most of us consumers aren’t).

So here’s what I’m wondering. If content providers are going to have to use HTTP Live Streaming to support all the iPhone OS devices, is this eventually going to put pressure on Flash? All that has to happen is for HTTP Live Streaming to become more viable on desktops, and then you’ll have a video distribution solution that skips the Adobe tax and the extra step of Flash encoding. HLS is supported by QuickTime X on Snow Leopard, but I don’t believe that the Windows version of QuickTime handles it yet. Pity.

Still, if I were Adobe, I’d be pretty concerned about HTTP Live Streaming right now.

Eek! A Patent!

Mike Shaver’s blog about Mozilla forgoing H.264 support in the HTML <video> tag is getting a lot of play, predictably from the /. crowd.

It’s a shame, because it’s a childish and facile argument. Here’s the gist of it.

For Mozilla, H.264 is not currently a suitable technology choice. In many countries, it is a patented technology, meaning that it is illegal to use without paying license fees to the MPEG-LA. Without such a license, it is not legal to use or distribute software that produces or consumes H.264-encoded content.

In short, the very idea that something is patented and requires licensing is prima facie proof that it is intolerable. Going on:

These license fees affect not only browser developers and distributors, but also represent a toll booth on anyone who wishes to produce video content. And if H.264 becomes an accepted part of the standardized web, those fees are a barrier to entry for developers of new browsers, those bringing the web to new devices or platforms, and those who would build tools to help content and application development.

Yeah, can you imagine if any other technology were encumbered by patents? They’d have to pass on the costs to customers too! Imagine if television were patented, or if automobiles involved 100,000 patents… surely those products could never exist and never be affordable.

There is a case to be made against patents and intellectual property as a whole, but this blog doesn’t make it. Instead, it blithely refuses to acknowledge that we do live in a world of IP, decrying its costs as if they are out of the ordinary or unjust. Ultimately, it flees back to the intellectual dead-end of “everything should be in Ogg”, a stance so untenable that even ESR conceded it was a non-starter, four years ago.

A final irony: by refusing to support H.264, Mozilla bolsters the primary alternative for video on the web: the Flash plug-in, which is not just patent-encumbered but proprietary, available only from Adobe and only in those environments where it serves the company’s strategic ends. Shaver, to be fair, admits that proprietary plug-ins are bad too, but declines to say they’re far more bad than patent-encumbered standards. Instead, he holds out for a pollyannaish vision of completely free web video technology, naming Ogg as his moral standard-bearer, without acknowledging Ogg’s lamentable but obvious feet of clay.

Video Editing with Haddocks

News.com.com.com.com, on evidence of a new Apple video format in iMovie 8.0.5

Dubbed iFrame, the new video format is based on industry standard technologies like H.264 video and AAC audio. As expected with H.264, iFrame produces much smaller file sizes than traditional video formats, while maintaining its high-quality video. Of course, the smaller file size increases import speed and helps with editing video files.

Saying smaller files are easier to edit is like saying cutting down the mightiest tree in the forest is easier with a haddock than with a chainsaw, as the former is lighter to hold.

The real flaw with this is that H.264, while a lovely end-user distribution format, uses heavy temporal compression, potentially employing both P-frames (“predicted” frames, meaning they require data from multiple earlier frames), and B-frames (“bidirectionally predicted” frames, meaning they require data from both earlier and subsequent frames). Scrubbing frame-by-frame through H.264 is therefore slowed by sometimes having to read in and decompress multiple frames of data in order to render the next one. And in my Final Cut experience, scrubbing backwards through H.264 is particularly slow; shuttle a few frames backwards and you literally have to let go of the wheel for a few seconds to let the computer catch up. For editing, you see a huge difference when you use a format with only I-frames (“intra” frames, meaning every frame has all the data it needs), such as M-JPEG or Pixlet.

You can use H.264 in an all-I-frame mode (which makes it more or less M-JPEG), but then you’re not getting small file-sizes meant for end-user distribution. I’ll bet that iFrame employs H.264 P- and B-frames, being aimed at the non-pro user whose editing consists of just a handful of cuts, and won’t mind the disk grinding as they identify the frame to cut on.

But for more sophisticated editing, having your source in H.264 would be painful.

This also speaks to a larger point of Apple seemingly turning its back on advanced media creatives in favor of everyday users with simpler needs. I’ve been surprised at CocoaHeads meetings to hear that I’m not the only one who bemoans the massive loss of functionality from the old 32-bit C-based QuickTime API to the easier-to-use but severely limited QTKit. That said, everyone else expects that we’ll see non-trivial editing APIs in QTKit eventually. I hope they’re right, but everything I see from Apple, including iFrame’s apparent use of H.264 as a capture-time and therefore edit-time format, makes me think otherwise.

What’s New, Blue Q?

One-time self-described “World’s Greatest Compressionist” Ben Waggoner posts a pointed question to the quicktime-api list:

http://www.apple.com/macosx/what-is-macosx/quicktime.html

What I’d like to know is if QuickTime X is going to be available for Windows and older versions of Mac OS X.

It’s an important issue, because despite iTunes’ insistence on installing QuickTime on Windows, the future of that product seems completely unknown. For years, every question I’ve seen about the future of QuickTime on Windows has been met with absolute silence from Apple. Yeah, I know, “Apple does not comment on unannounced products,” and all… Still, Apple has left this technology in limbo for a remarkably long time. I recall asking ADC reps about QuickTime for Windows back at Leopard Tech Day Atlanta in 2006, as I was considering calling it from Java with JNI, and (as previously noted), I got no reply at all. And every other public question I’ve seen about the future of QuickTime on Windows has gone similarly unanswered, for years.

Smell that? That’s the scent of Abandoned Code Rot. We got that from QuickTime for Java for a few years before they managed to finally deprecate it (though they apparently haven’t gotten the message out).

It wouldn’t be too surprising to see QT for Windows fall by the wayside… Apple probably cares more about the popularity of its favorite formats and codecs (AAC and H.264) than of the QuickTime APIs and QuickTime’s interactive features like Wired Sprites that have been clearly and unequivocally beaten by Flash.

But if that’s true of Windows, is it also true on the Mac? QuickTime developers are right to be a little worried. The old C-based QuickTime API remains a 32-bit only option, intended to be replaced by the Objective-C QTKit. But in the four years since its introduction in Tiger, QTKit has only taken on part of the capabilities of the old QuickTime API. With Leopard, you could finally do capture and some significant editing (e.g., inserting segments at the movie or track levels), but raw sample level data was unavailable for any track type other than video, and some of the more interesting track types (like effects and especially tweens, useful for fading an audio track’s volume between specific times) are effectively useless in QTKit.

With Snow Leopard, the big news isn’t a more capable QTKit API, it’s QuickTime X. And as Apple’s QuickTime X page points out, QTX is all about a highly-optimized playback path (using decode hardware if available) and polished presentation. Great news if you’re playing 1080p movies on your computer or living room PC, not so much if you want to edit them: if you want to edit anything, you’re back in the old 32-bit QuickTime (and the code is probably still written in C against the old APIs, given QTKit’s numerous limitations). You don’t see a 64-bit Final Cut Pro, now do you? (BTW, here’s a nice blog on that topic.)

When you all install Snow Leopard tomorrow and run the QTX-based QuickTime Player, you’ll immediately understand why the $30 QuickTime Pro (which bought you editing and exporting from the Player app and the plug-in) is gone. Follow up in the comments tomorrow (after the NDA drops) and we’ll discuss further.

If I were starting a major new multimedia project that wasn’t solely playback-based — imagine, say, a podcast studio that would combine the editing, exporting, and publishing tasks that you might currently perform with Garage Band, iTunes, and FTP — I would be very confused as to which technology to adopt. QuickTime’s cross-platform story seems to be finished (QTJ deprecated, QTW rotting away), and everything we hear on the Mac side is about playback. Would it be safer to assume that QuickTime doesn’t have a future as a media creation framework, and drop down to the engine level (Core Audio and Core Video)? And if not QuickTime… then what?

Oh, and as for the first question from the quicktime-api thread:

… How about Apple throwing us a bone as to what QuickTime X will offer those of us that use QT and QTSS?

From what I can tell, Apple has all but ditched QTSS in favor of HTTP Live Streaming, supported by QuickTime X and iPhone 3.0.

Ogg: The “Intelligent Design” of digital media

Well, another go ’round with this: HTML5 won’t mandate Ogg as universally-supported codecs, and the freetards are on a tear. I was going to follow up on a JavaPosse thread about this, but I hurled enough abuse onto their list last week.

It’s abundantly clear in this blog that I don’t think Ogg is the solution that its supporters want it to be: I have a whole tag for all the posts where I dismiss Vorbis, Theora, and friends. Among these reasons:

  • I don’t think it’s technically competitive.

  • It certainly isn’t competitive in terms of expertise and mindshare, which is vitally important in media codecs: there’s a much deeper pool of shared knowledge about the MPEG codecs, which leads to chip-level support, competition among encoders, compressionists who understand the formats and how to get the most out of them, etc.

  • Its IP status remains unclear. With even MPEG-4, following a lengthy and formal patent pooling process, attacked by AT&T’s claim of a submarine patent, I have no reason to think that Ogg wouldn’t face similar claims, legitimate or not, if there was any money behind it, which there isn’t.

  • If I go to my former colleagues at CNN or in Hollywood and say “you guys should use Ogg because…”, there are no words in the English language that plausibly complete the sentence and appeal to the rational self-interest of the other party.

On this last point, I’ve got an ugly analogy: just as proponents of “Intelligent Design” are people who don’t really care about biology beyond the point at which it intrudes on their religious belief, so too do I think Ogg advocates generally don’t know much about media, but have become interested because the success of patent-encumbered formats and codecs is an affront to their open-source religion.

Ogg’s value is in its compatibility with the open source religion. It has little to offer beyond that, so it’s no surprise that it has zero traction outside of the Linux zealot community. Even ESR realized that continually shouting “everything should be in Ogg” was a losing strategy, and he said that three years ago.

I think the open source community would like to use HTML5 to force Ogg on the web community, but it’s not going to work. As others have pointed out, there’s little reason to think that IE will ever support HTML5. Even if they do, the <video> tag is not going to replace Flash or Silverlight plug-ins for video. Despite my initial enthusiasm for the <video> tag commoditizing video, I see nothing in the spec that would support DRM, and it’s hard to imagine Big Content putting their stuff on web pages without DRM anytime soon. And while you can put multiple media files in a <video> tag easily enough, having to encode/transcode to multiple formats is one reason that Big Content moved away from the Real/WMP/QuickTime switch to the relative simplicity of works-for-everyone Flash.

I’m tired of being lectured by computer people about media; it’s as ludicrous as being lectured about computers by my old boss at Headlines. Just because you use YouTube, doesn’t make you an expert, any more than my knowing how to use a username and password means I understand security (seriously, I don’t, and doubt I ever will). Kirill Grouchnikov pretty much nailed what computer people think good video is with this tweet. I’ll add this: there are probably a thousand people at Sun who understand 3D transformations in OpenGL, and maybe five who know what an Edit Decision List is. So they go with what they know.

A couple years back, I gave a JavaOne BoF in which I made a renewed call for a Java Media library which would support sample-level access and some level of editing, arguing that enabling users to take control of their own media was a manifest requirement of future media frameworks. By a show of hands, most of the developers in the audience thought it would be “enough” to just support playback of some modern codecs. JavaFX now provides exactly that. Happy now?

People who actually work in media don’t mind paying for stuff, and don’t mind not owning/sharing the IP. Video production professionals are so accustomed to standardizing on commercial products, many of them become generic nouns in industry jargon: “chyron” for character generators, “grass valley” for switchers, “teleprompters”, “betacam” tape, etc. Non-free is not a problem here. And if your argument for open-source is “you’re free to fix it if it doesn’t do what you want it to,” the person who has 48 shows a day to produce is going to rightly ask “why would I use something that doesn’t work right on day one?”

The open source community doesn’t get media. Moreover, it doesn’t get that it doesn’t get media. The Ogg codecs placate the true believers, and that’s the extent of their value.