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The conflict between video on the web and open standards

Few web video standards are truly open or free, and the major players have no interest in pushing them, says Richard Hillesley…

Yesterday I went to the UK Parliament TV site to tune into a speech by an MP, and failed because “Silverlight does not appear to be correctly installed on this computer.” At the bottom of a sequence of instructions, it said, “Linux users: please see the help pages for installer”, and I was led, via another page, to an installation page for Novell Moonlight.

Moonlight is a partial re-implementation of Silverlight which is intended by Microsoft to replace Flash as the ‘de facto standard’ for online advertising and video. Moonlight was developed under licence from Microsoft by a group of Mono developers who worked for Novell, but is not implemented on Firefox and is excluded by some Linux distros.

Fedora’s engineering manager, Tom ‘spot’ Callaway, noted that Microsoft’s Covenant to End Users of Moonlight is “specifically worded to apply only to end-users, and makes the following noteworthy distinction: ‘an entity or individual cannot qualify both as an End User and a Distributor for use of the same copy of a Moonlight Implementation.’ It grants no patent rights to Distributors… once you distribute, you stop being considered an ‘End User’ by Microsoft, and are no longer protected by this ‘covenant’ (unless you’re Novell or Microsoft).”

The covenant also reserves the right for Microsoft to discontinue the agreement at any time, and forbids use of “GPLv3 or a similar licence”. Callaway gives a clear enunciation of the problem. “If Microsoft was serious about encouraging adoption of the Silverlight/Moonlight technology in FOSS,” he wrote, “they would do so with an unrestricted patent grant for all end-users and distributors for code under any FOSS licence.”

Moonlight gives credibility to Microsoft’s claim that Silverlight is multi-platform, accessible to free software developers and a “part of the open web.” But when Miguel de Icaza indicated that he wanted Microsoft to contribute technology to ECMA he drew the evasive response from Bob Muglia of Microsoft that the firm was “trying to balance standards with its ability to rapidly innovate the Silverlight platform” – or, as it is expressed elsewhere, to strike “a balance between standards and the real world,” which in effect, is a declaration that Silverlight will not conform to open standards.

Few of the options for watching video on the web are truly open or free, and those that are free are not pushed by the major players.

Conversely, the developers of Firefox, take the position that they can’t and won’t support the H.264 format, because, although H.264 has some technical advantages, and has been ‘recognised’ as an ‘industry standard’ format for implementations of HTML5, the codec is patent and royalty encumbered, which inhibits its use with free and open source software. H.264 is not an open standard but an industry-led compromise developed by the ISO/IEC Moving Picture Experts Group (MPEG). In the view of proponents of the open web, a patent-encumbered codec works against the interests of startups, web designers, developers and users, and is a barrier to entry for free and open source software developers. The last of the US patents on H.264 does not expire until 2028.

Formats which are not knowingly patent encumbered and are released under open source licences include Ogg Theora and Dirac.

Most Linux users have made an unhappy compromise with Flash, which is ubiquitous but proprietary, and has performance issues on Linux. Meanwhile, Microsoft is using its desktop and browser monopolies to push for its own proprietary methodologies and codecs through Silverlight. Neither Apple nor Microsoft has any great interest in pushing for an unencumbered format, so we have reached an impasse. Except that Google has dropped support for H.264 in Google Chrome and is trying to focus support on its own WebM format, which is the one format supported by a major commercial enterprise that is patent and royalty free.

By definition, a standard assumes a level of commonality that enables multiple implementations which are totally conversant with one another. The basic requirement of a standard is that it preserves the integrity and neutrality of the data. In the view of Tim Berners-Lee: “The lesson from the proliferation of new applications and services on top of the web infrastructure is that innovation will happen provided it has a platform of open technical standards, a flexible, scalable architecture, and access to these standards on royalty-free ($0 fee patent licences) terms.”

I never did hear that speech in Parliament. The irony of this story, of course, is that the UK Government has said it is committed to open standards.