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Why not Ogg?

I was just in a chat on the #javaposse IRC channel, and I mistakenly walked into the whole Java Media topic, of which I have said far too much already (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6), and which I’m really not interested in discussing further, as the Java Community has given my basic argument — that Web 2.0 will call for a read/write, cross-platform, web-embeddable media library, and if Java doesn’t step up, then it will be Flash — a fair consideration, and has rejected it, saying that “all most people need is playback.”

Fine, I say, but all the consulting work I’ve taken on in the last few years has involved editing, capture, or both, so if Java Media’s big comeback is going to be playback only, then I need to do something else, either single-platform (QuickTime), or Flash.  So, see ya.

And at this point, the playback-only crowd gets into the whole “how do we support all the patent-encumbered codecs out there” snit — overlooking the fact that Flash succeeded with a small number of not-particularly-good codecs — and as software developers, they all decide that what they really need to support is Ogg Vorbis and Ogg Theora.  In fact, the feature request  to add the Ogg codecs to the long-abandoned Java Media Framework is consistently in the top 5 Java RFEs.

And it never seems to occur to anyone that while everything else Sun does with client-side/user-facing Java is a “me too” effort, that nobody else in the industry seems to have embraced Ogg in a big bet-the-company kind of way.  Despite its lack of patent encumbrances and its open-source implementation.

Let me posit that these traits are not features, they’re actually bugs.

Any company that embraced Ogg and put dollars behind it (or used it in products or services that involved serious dollars) would need to do some due diligence to prove to itself that Ogg is, indeed, not infringing on any known patents.  Given Ogg’s nature as an open-source project, this would likely be an expensive and tedious process, if even practical at all.  But failing to do such an examination would be fiscally irresponsible, as in “could get sued for not doing it” irresponsible.  Because in the end, all you’ve got is the community’s assurances that there is no patent-encumbered IP in the code base.  Are they telling the truth?  Can they even know what’s in there and where it came from?  A proper examination would demand proof, and that would be tedious and expensive.

And, even if Sun (or whoever) did such an exam, there’s no preventing some patent troll from going after Ogg anyways if it gets attached to a successful product or service.  So many of the media codecs are so similar — the various DCT-based codecs share common ancestors and many of the same ideas (page 77 of Damien Stolarz’ Mastering Internet Video has a remarkable “family tree” of video codecs) — that it’s easy to imagine a sleazy legal team convincing a jury in Marshall, Texas that those similarities are prima facie proof of infringement.

And anyone fighting such a suit over Ogg stands alone.  Sign up for VC1 and you get Microsoft in your corner, with more money than god.  Even the H.264 camp, currently implicated in a presumably-bogus suit from SBC AT&T, has deep-pocketed partners who would fight an infringement finding.  With Flash adopting H.264, and YouTube being bought by Google, it’s likely that Google ultimately has a dog in this fight.

Ogg doesn’t magically solve the codec problem.  And it’s the wrong problem to solve  anyways, since playback alone won’t be interesting by the time Sun can bring a product to market. 

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Comments (2)

  1. kebernet

    Any company that embraced Ogg and put dollars behind it (or used it in products or services that involved serious dollars) would need to do some due diligence to prove to itself that Ogg is, indeed, not infringing on any known patents. Given Ogg’s nature as an open-source project, this would likely be an expensive and tedious process, if even practical at all. But failing to do such an examination would be fiscally irresponsible, as in “could get sued for not doing it” irresponsible. Because in the end, all you’ve got is the community’s assurances that there is no patent-encumbered IP in the code base. Are they telling the truth? Can they even know what’s in there and where it came from? A proper examination would demand proof, and that would be tedious and expensive.

    Couldn’t Sun, however, then turn indemnified Ogg into a potential profit center?

    All this aside, I still keep looking at Google’s (now defunct) video product based on VLC. VLC for a long time was one of those “hands off” open source products because of patent fears, and Google almost single handedly washed those aside. I think Sun could do the same with Ogg.

    Secondly, I am not sure that due diligence costs on Ogg would be anywhere near the cost of per-seat licensing of H.264. Adobe is talking about forking over MAD CASH to include it in Flash. I don’t know that Google cares much either.

    Thirdly, and this is orthogonal to the discussion here, Sun cleaning up legal on Ogg and shipping widespread support would go a long way to earning back the good will of the Rob Maldas of the world that they lost years ago. Relative to other overtures they have made of late, a few hundred hours of mostly in-house lawyer time seems like a deal on that front.

  2. […] more or less matches my take on Ogg, which is that it poses an unknown patent liability risk: the /. mob insists it’s […]

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