It’s just starting to sink in for me how important the recent inclusion of the Free Software Ogg codecs in Mozilla Firefox 3.1 will turn out to be, especially concerning the Ogg Theora video codec. This will be the first chance for a non-proprietary video codec to really break into the mainstream. Combine Firefox’s now-native support for it (with its >20% market share) and Wikipedia, which only accepts video uploads in Ogg Theora format, and we have a powerhouse for advancing the adoption of non-proprietary codecs. This is big news. Hell, I was interviewed by LinuxInsider on the topic and all I’m really responsible for is increasing public knowledge of this recent event.
As I said in that article, we’re close to reaching the point where video will be natively supported by all browsers on all platforms just as smoothly as images are today. This will have an amazing effect on the usability of the web, and by extension, what humanity is capable of doing with it. It will certainly give many companies (especially smaller start-ups with less funding) a better chance to establish a video foothold on the web, with no more licensing of finicky Flash players or H.264 codecs required. Naturally, it will do wonders for the ease of including video content on personal sites as well.
But don’t think the war is won just yet. There are many hard battles yet to fight in the war for adoption of non-proprietary multimedia codecs. We already lost one of the battles, when Apple and Nokia argued vociferously (and successfully) to remove the Ogg Vorbis and Ogg Theora wording from the HTML 5 draft spec. But the Mozilla Foundation has now successfully managed to ensure that Ogg codec compliance can no longer be ignored. And surprisingly, Microsoft isn’t even the enemy here. As I pointed out in the article, Microsoft isn’t averse to using non-proprietary codecs — they used Ogg Vorbis to handle music in the PC release of Halo, for instance. No, the real enemies here are Nokia and Apple, two members of the MPEG-LA patent pool who are currently making millions of undeserved dollars off of questionable cartel-held software patents that stifle innovation in the multimedia web space and hinder adoption of web video.
The big patent-holders like Apple and Nokia are arguing so tenaciously because they know that once non-proprietary codecs have gained a foothold in any niche, the proprietary codecs lose it permanently. Free (as in free speech) codecs have such clear advantages over non-free codecs, not least of which is that multimedia device manufacturers don’t have to pay licensing fees, that once a free codec becomes viable, no non-free codec will ever be able to reclaim that niche again. So the patent holders will fight tooth-and-nail against losing their cash cows, but inevitably that is what will happen. It’s only a matter of time. We’ve already seen it with the image and document formats — now audio and video are next.