Microsoft Puts All Its IE9 Video Codec Eggs in the H.264 Basket

Microsoft is committed to supporting the HTML5 specification in Internet Explorer 9 (IE9), and when it comes to which HTML5 video codec to support Microsoft is putting its weight behind H.264, case closed.

Microsoft is committed to supporting the HTML5 specification in Internet Explorer 9, and when it comes to which HTML5 video codec to support, Microsoft is putting its weight behind H.264, case closed.

That is essentially what Dean Hachamovitch, Microsoft's general manager for Internet Explorer, said in a couple of recent blog posts. Initially, on April 29, Hachamovitch said that in supporting HTML5 the specification does not call for a particular video format, "but IE9 will support playback of H.264 video only." After a bit of community furor over his post, Hachamovitch felt compelled to post a response.

In his initial post, Hachamovitch went on to describe how H.264 is an industry standard and he noted that Microsoft's IE9 team has demonstrated IE9 playing H.264-encoded video from YouTube.

Moreover, Hachamovitch said that although other popular codecs come up in the discussion of which ones to support, Microsoft was going with the one most available and least likely to cause any kind of intellectual property issues.

Said Hachamovitch:

""The distinction between the availability of source code and the ownership of the intellectual property in that available source code is critical. Today, intellectual property rights for H.264 are broadly available through a well-defined program managed by MPEG-LA. The rights to other codecs are often less clear, as has been described in the press. Of course, developers can rely on the H.264 codec and hardware acceleration support of the underlying operating system, like Windows 7, without paying any additional royalty.""

However, a flurry of comments sparked a response from Hachamovitch. The commenters asked why Microsoft would only support one codec when other alternatives exist, such as Ogg Theora, v8 or vc-1. Meanwhile, other commenters said Microsoft's choice represented a sad day for the Open Web, others questioned Microsoft's financial or empire entrenching motives, while others accused Microsoft of being Adobe's lapdog because of Hachamovitch's stated policy of supporting Flash and related specs -- and acknowledging that "video on the Web is predominantly Flash-based."

However, in rebuttal, Hachamovitch laid out his case that developers want certainty and predictability in a browser and, simply stated, H.264 offers a more certain path.

Added Hachamovitch:

""First and most important, we think it is the best available video codec today for HTML5 for our customers. Relative to alternatives, H.264 maintains strong hardware support in PCs and mobile devices as well as a breadth of implementation in consumer electronics devices around the world, excellent video quality, scale of existing usage, availability of tools and content authoring systems, and overall industry momentum - each an important factor that contributes to our point of view.""

Also, because the rights for implementations of the H.264 standard are managed by MPEG-LA -- a firm that specializes in managing patent pools for standards -- "H.264 also provides the best certainty and clarity with respect to legal rights from the many companies that have patents in this area," Hachamovitch said. The rights to other codecs are less clear, he said.

To further support this, Hachamovitch said: "Many people seem to assume that availability of source code under an open source license implies that there are no additional costs, or that the code has properly secured necessary intellectual property rights from all rightful owners. Our experience and the experience of others indicate otherwise..."

However, Microsoft said it will allow third parties to provide support for alternative codecs and customers are free to use those if they so choose.

Indeed, Hachamovitch said Microsoft pays into MPEG-LA about twice as much as it receives back for rights to H.264. "Microsoft pledged its patent rights to this neutral organization in order to make its rights broadly available under clear terms, not because it thought this might be a good revenue stream," Hachamovitch said in his most recent post. "We do not foresee this patent pool ever producing a material revenue stream, and revenue plays no part in our decision here."

Hachamovitch also defended Microsoft's decision to support plug-ins such as Flash and Silverlight, in a light that takes an opposing stance to that of Apple CEO Steve Jobs in his recent jab at Adobe and Flash.

In conclusion, Hachamovitch said:

""The biggest obstacle to supporting more than H.264 today is the uncertainty. When there's industry consensus and confidence that the uncertainties are resolved, we'll be open to considering other codecs. Until then, we'll continue with our current plans to deliver great HTML5 video in IE9 with certainty for consumers and developers.""

Yet, a lot of good it did. Commenters still took the opportunity to tear into Microsoft's stance on the video codec issue. One commenter called Microsoft's strategy just another move to promote format lock-in. And another commenter identified as Florian Bosch, wrote:

""H.264 is the next GIF, and personally I don't fancy another 20 years in which some strangulating monopolistic standard cripples the Web, the effects of which still reverberate in today's image support in browsers. Trying to make H.264 the standard for video is guaranteeing a GIFication of Web video and another 20 years or more of stagnation in the field of Web video.""