Mozilla, Opera look to make video on the Web easier

New features in the Firefox and Opera browsers could make it less complex and cheaper for people to incorporate video into their websites, representatives of Mozilla and Opera say.

New features in the Firefox and Opera browsers could make it less complex and cheaper for people to incorporate video into their websites, representatives of Mozilla and Opera say.

Firefox and Opera will support a new HTML tag specifically for embedding video in web pages. As long as the browsers support a video's specific codec, or encoding method, the browsers will then be able to play the video without launching third-party enabling software, said Chris Double, a Mozilla engineer. Mozilla and Opera are also working to support the royalty-free video codec Ogg Theora.

Video on the web is a fractured mix of proprietary formats, encoded using systems from four main vendors. Apple offers QuickTime, Microsoft offers Windows Media, Adobe offers Flash and RealNetworks has RealPlayer. A user must have a plug-in from each of those vendors if they want to play video in that vendor's format.

The plug-ins that play video are free to download and use: the software companies make their money selling encoders to create the video, and server software to host and stream video.

Opera and Mozilla officials say the changes to their browsers will offer a new level of ease for web developers using open-source tools to embed and stream their video. If video encoded in Ogg Theora plays directly in the browser, everyday internet surfers would not have the burden of downloading extra plug-ins for their browser to play the video.

Developers would not have to pay royalties to use the Ogg Theora codec, and open-source streaming media servers such as VLC or Icecast are free.

"With a baseline, royalty-free codec, end-users can produce and embed their own videos without having to pay any fees for the production of the video itself or the rights to stream it," Double said.

That could prove challenging to big vendors such as Adobe and Microsoft, who are betting big on demand for their own video and multimedia tools to feed the internet's video boom.

Adobe recently rolled out an upgrade to its software, Flash 9, used by sites such as Google's YouTube. Microsoft also recently released its Silverlight multimedia technology, designed to build dynamic videos and graphics.

Supporters of the video tag and royalty-free codec contend it's vexing to have private software companies control video formats. Those vendors, for example, could suddenly change their long-term support plans depending on changes in their business or simply halt support for certain operating systems, such as Linux.

The challenge, however, will be getting all browser makers to support a video HTML tag and one or a set of the same encoding codecs. On the photo side, this already works: all browsers support the "img" HTML tag and JPEG and PNG file formats, which don't require extra software to view.

"You don't require a plug-in to view images," said Mike Schroepfer, vice president of engineering for Mozilla. "I think video is the next natural evolution of that."

HTML, the web's mother tongue, never included a video tag in its original specifications. Videos encoded in Flash, for example, are often launched via JavaScript code, which Double argues can be difficult for people to manipulate on their own web pages.

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the caretaker of HTML, is working on a long-term project to update and add new features to the HTML specifications used by web browsers. A video HTML tag is under consideration.

However, a final specification for HTML 5 could be a decade away, the editor of the committee developing it said. The success of the video tag will largely depend on if browser makers start supporting it and web developers embrace it.

"It's not only about specifications," said Karl Dubost, conformance manager for the W3C. "It [the video HTML tag] requires deployment in enough browsers so that the market forces make it ubiquitous across platforms."

Mozilla and Opera are pressing ahead without waiting for an update to the HTML standard. The video tag feature won't make it in the initial Firefox 3.0 release, scheduled for next year, but will be delivered in future updates, Double said. Early last month, Opera released an experimental build of its browser with support for a video tag as well as support for Ogg Theora.

Microsoft's Internet Explorer holds about 80% of the browser market, and it remains to be seen how it views Opera's and Mozilla's plans. Microsoft did not response to requests for comment.

Microsoft tends to not go along with other vendors' standardisation efforts, said Dimitris Dimitriadis, who consults companies on standards implementation and formerly worked with the W3C. But if a technology or specification starts to be widely used, Microsoft has been known to change course.

"I think they are very sensitive to market changes," Dimitriadis said. "If they see that people want to use embedded video they will certainly provide an alternative."

But other problems could arise if Opera's and Mozilla's implementations of a video HTML tag don't match a future W3C specification, Dimitriadis said. The process of creating a standard is very slow, and it's inevitable that companies' technology will move much faster than the administrative process, he said.

"There’s a risk of having brilliant people spending time on something that does not get implemented," Dimitriadis said.

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Jeremy Kirk

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