A brief note on web video formats, Mozilla, Theora, and H.264 in light of WebM

In a dispassionate comparison of the two major web video formats as of a few days ago, H.264 is basically stronger than Theora. H.264 has numerous and varied hardware decoders. Theora does not. H.264 has numerous software decoders. Theora has this too. Windows 7 and OS X natively support H.264. Neither natively supports Theora. Flash supports H.264. It does not support Theora. Numerous video cameras natively generate H.264. The same is not true of Theora. H.264 produces high quality for its compression. It’s disputable whether this is true of Theora. Licensing H.264 is burdensome but reasonably risk-free. Licensing Theora is painless but disputably risky.

Still, H.264 has weaknesses. H.264 is quite complex. Theora is relatively simple. H.264 is subject to actively enforced patents. Theora is, from all public appearances and from inferred verdicts of legal reviews by numerous organizations using or implementing Theora, subject to none. To use H.264, you must be sufficiently small as to not be worth the trouble of monetizing, you must find someone willing to acquire a license permitting them to extend to you the privileges you desire, or you must pay the piper his demand. To use, modify, or redistribute Theora requires no permission.

Network effects, unusually strong in technology, ceded the advantage to H.264. The smart money was always on H.264 enjoying continued success and Theora enjoying comparative irrelevance. But for Mozilla “logic” could not be dispositive. The loss of freedom of redistribution and grant of near-unlimited reuse and modification was a dealbreaker for H.264, absent a situation where refusing to deal with the devil (metaphorically speaking) caused greater harm than doing so.

Where faith in a fact can help create the fact, that would be an insane logic which should say that faith running ahead of scientific evidence is the ‘lowest kind of immorality’ into which a thinking being can fall. Yet such is the logic by which our scientific absolutists pretend to regulate our lives!

William James, The Will to Believe

Mozilla (and Opera, I should note) believed it was crucial for implementing, producing, and consuming video on the web to be legal and free to all without restriction. We had faith that it was possible to solve the problem of video on the web in the same way other problems at the foundation of the web were solved: through freely usable standards as happened with TCP/IP, HTTP, DNS, HTML, CSS, ECMAScript, PNG, SVG, JPEG, and many others. Absent this faith and a willingness to translate it into action by not implementing H.264, I doubt even a plausible free solution would have materialized. Google’s motivations surely are not exactly those of Mozilla or Opera, but I believe our actions strongly motivated Google to spend over $130 million to give away a video format.

Google’s release of VP8 and WebM cannot, I think, be attributed to logic alone; it must also be attributed to faith that freely usable video could be reality while evidence counseled otherwise.