Mozilla: Firefox needs H.264 support to survive shift to mobile

Mozilla Firefox logoMozilla began an internal discussion last week about whether to implement support for H.264 and other patent-encumbered media formats by relying on hardware decoding and codecs supplied by the underlying operating system. Over the weekend, Mozilla's Brendan Eich and Mitchell Baker wrote blog entries explaining why they support the plan.

The initial proposal on the mailing list focused on Mozilla's Boot2Gecko (B2G) mobile platform and the Android port of the Firefox Web browser. As the debate evolved, a path for enabling the same capability in Firefox on the desktop was also discussed. The issue is controversial because royalty-bearing technologies are antithetical to Mozilla's vision of an inclusive, open Web.

Mozilla has historically argued against the use of H.264 and had previously decided not to support it on principle. The organization argued in favor of Ogg and then backed the VP8 codec when Google made it available under open, royalty-free terms after acquiring On2. Google said that it would encourage adoption of its own VP8-based WebM format by removing H.264 support from the Chrome browser.

One year later, Google still hasn't followed through with that commitment. Mozilla says that it can no longer afford to wait for Google to do what it has promised. In his blog post, Eich explained that H.264 has become too deeply entrenched in the mobile space to be easily displaced and that browsers that don't support it are jeopardizing their own future relevance.

"H.264 is absolutely required right now to compete on mobile. I do not believe that we can reject H.264 content in Firefox on Android or in B2G and survive the shift to mobile," he wrote. "Losing a battle is a bitter experience. I won't sugar-coat this pill. But we must swallow it if we are to succeed in our mobile initiatives."

He thinks that Google is in a position where it has to continue supporting H.264 in order to remain competitive itself, which means that the search giant can't be counted on to champion WebM to the extent that some had hoped. A graph in Eich's blog post shows that approximately 80 percent of video content on the Web that is available through the HTML5 video element is encoded with H.264.

"Apple sells a lot of H.264-supporting hardware. That hardware in general, and specifically in video playback quality, is the gold standard. Google is in my opinion not going to ship mobile browsers this year or next that fail to play H.264 content that Apple plays perfectly," he wrote. "Whatever happens in the very long run, Mozilla can't wait for such an event. Don't ask Google why they bought On2 but failed to push WebM to the exclusion of H.264 on Android. The question answers itself."

Although Mozilla is going to have to capitulate on patent-encumbered video in order to stay relevant today, there may be opportunities down the road to address the issue. Patents will eventually expire, Eich pointed out, and can also be invalidated. In the meantime, a pragmatic compromise on H.264 will end the impasse that is currently blocking widespread adoption of standards-based Web video.

Source: Ars Technica

Tags: Boot2Gecko, Firefox, H.264, HTML5, Mozilla

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