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Will Idealism be Firefox’s Downfall?

Last week, YouTube announced they will begin supporting the upcoming web standard HTML5 which allows videos to be viewed without an Adobe Flash plugin. Those who wanted to play around with the new HTML5-enabled website were directed to a separate experimental site called TestTube. However, noted the YouTube blog post, only Chrome, Safari, and IE users could give the new site a try. Firefox was notably absent from the list.

Firefox’s development is directed by the Mozilla Foundation, an organization whose belief in open standards guides their choices about what formats they’ll support on the web. The problem with the new YouTube site is that it uses a video format called H.264, a patented codec that’s not royalty-free. To support a fee-based software like this goes against Mozilla’s core beliefs. But if they choose not to support it, then further down the road, they may soon find themselves losing market share to those that do.

Pay to Play: H.264 and its $5 Million per Year Fee

According to Mozilla’s vice president of engineering, Mike Shaver, this issue is more than a simple choice about picking the right technology for the job. It’s about principles. Supporting the H.264 video codec means paying licensing fees to an organization called MPEG-LA, a group that charges $5,000,000 annually for the codec’s use. But it’s not the cost to their organization that Mozilla is worried about – it’s the cost to the developers, distributors, and anyone who wants to create video content on the web. “If H.264 becomes an accepted part of the standardized web, those fees are a barrier to entry for developers of new browsers,” Shaver writes on his blog. “I want to make sure that there are no toll-booth barriers to entry for someone building a whole new browser, or bringing a browser to a whole new device or OS, or making and using tools for creating standard web content.”

In other words, the decision to support or not support the codec isn’t just about technology, it’s about where the web is going and what it should be. And in Mozilla’s eyes, that means free, open, and available to anyone.

But Will End Users Care?

Unfortunately, Mozilla’s idealism won’t mean much to the end user who may soon discover that YouTube videos don’t work in their preferred browser. And once they learn that switching browsers solves the problem, the years they spent loyal to Firefox will be forgotten in the need to have functional video.

Interestingly enough, one of the browsers where the H.264 encoded videos will work is Google Chrome, the up-and-coming browser that’s also the basis for Google’s new web-based operating system, Google Chrome OS, due out later this year. The new browser is already nearing a 5% market share as of December (according to Net Applications) – a notable chunk given Chrome’s lack of support for Mac and Linux-based machines until only last month. Ironically, it’s Google, typically fellow supporters of an open web, that is pushing the H.264 format’s adoption. Their choice to move forward with this codec on YouTube, a Google-owned property, has a major impact on the web as a whole.

There’s Still Hope

But even though it looks as if Google’s choice is pushing the web towards this pricey format, Christopher Blizzard, Mozilla’s Open Source Evangelist, reveals there’s still hope. According to an article in The Guardian, Blizzard says that there’s a chance that H.264 will not be Google’s final choice in the matter. There’s good reason to believe that Google is purchasing On2, a technology whose capabilities exceed that of H.264, he says. If that occurs, Google will likely license it royalty-free. Whether or not Google does so remains to be seen, of course, but we hope that Google will remember their motto, “don’t be evil” when the time comes. Until then, Mozilla stands alone at a crossroads, sticking by their principles, supporting the open web…even if that choice one day leads to their downfall.

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