Great news, Free Software fans! As of last night, out-of-the-box support for the Ogg Theora (video) and Ogg Vorbis (audio) open format codecs was enabled on the mainline Firefox development branch. Here’s the exact diff. These two codecs work in conjunction with the new <video> and <audio> tags, which will be supported in the next major release of Firefox, 3.1. If you’re feeling impatient, you can download the nightly 3.1 release which already includes the brand new Ogg codec support.
But what is the advantage of native browser support for the new tags, you may be wondering? The HTML 5 spec has lots of details, but what it boils down to is no longer having to rely on kludgy proprietary plugins like Flash or Quicktime (which often don’t work well cross-platform, I might add) to display multimedia content. The new tags work just like the current <img> tag does: feed them the URL to the appropriate media resource and they display it, just as simply as one might include a JPG image in a webpage. It’s such an obvious improvement over the previous state of affairs of dealing with online video that it really makes you wonder why it took so long. We’re several years into the online video revolution now (led by such giants as YouTube), so it’s only fair that we finally get native browser support for videos.
It’s important to point out that not only are the Ogg codecs free (as in both speech and beer) and unencumbered by patents, but that Ogg Theora’s performance has recently been significantly improved. It’s not quite as good as H.264, but it is better than many of the previous generation’s proprietary codecs, and it’s currently the best video codec around that is compatible with the Free Software philosophy. That’s why the Mozilla Foundation chose it to provide out-of-the-box video support in Firefox — all of the alternatives currently widely used for web video, such as flv, H.264, or DivX, are copyright and patent-encumbered, and thus could not be included in Firefox. It’s worth pointing out that Ogg Theora is also the only video codec allowed on all Wikimedia Foundation projects, including Wikipedia.
Not too long from now, after Firefox 3.1 is released, a significant double digit percentage of the web will have Ogg-enabled browsers. That will be a huge achievement for the Xiph.Org Foundation. Expect to see a lot more online video in the Free Software world, and hopefully a migration away from Flash video players, which I still can’t for the life of me get to work reliably in GNU/Linux. Once the <video> tag does start cropping up in a large number of places, will the competing browsers like Internet Explorer and Safari have any choice but to support it as well? Since all of the Ogg codecs are released under BSD-style — not GPL-style — licenses, there’s nothing stopping them!