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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.

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