H.264 ascendant: why Apple's no-Flash, no-Theora gamble is playing off


H.264, the video codec Apple supports for iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad playback, and for the HTML5 video tag in Safari, and now Microsoft is supporting it as well, which means its 66% share will likely go up. Add to that Steve Jobs think the competing, Firefox-supported license-free alternative, OGG Theora, will face patent infringement claims, and it's looking like we have a web video standards winner.

As anyone who read Steve Jobs' thoughts on Flash knows, he made a strong case for H.264 video and his hopes/belief it would render the need for Flash's FLV container, and especially its older, software-bound H.263 codec obsolete. TechCrunch contacted Encoding.com and found out it might just be already. According to the graph above, and given YouTube's 40% market share alone, it looks like H.264 is up around 66% and growing.

That's bad news for Adobe, and for OGG Theora whose competing standard is implemented alongside H.264 in Google's Chrome browser, and exclusively in Mozilla's Firefox. Worse news is that Microsoft has announced they're going exclusive for Internet Explorer 9, and like Apple they're doing it with H.264.

Mozilla backs Theora as a matter of policy, since even though H.264 is free for non-commerical end-users for years to come, it's owned by a consortium who could theoretically seek a license in the future. Theora is theoretically license-free in perpetuity -- but companies like Apple believe that's also theoretical and only ever one lawsuit away from changing.

Steve Jobs, sending from his iPad again, says exactly that:

All video codecs are covered by patents. A patent pool is being assembled to go after Theora and other "open source" codecs now. Unfortunately juste because something is open scourse, it doesn't mean or guarantee that i doesn't infringe on others patents. An open standard is different from being royalty free or open source.

So Apple is paying for H.264 and not risking getting sued for Theora later, and they're banking on H.264 uptake to be so fast and far, Flash won't be needed for video playback. At 66% we're getting close to that point. At 75-80% we'll be at it. H.264 will be the standard and all of Apple's devices and platforms will already support it -- and support it well.

Now H.264 becoming the standard doesn't mean it's the best choice or even the right one, just like DVD, Blu-Ray, USB, MP3, etc. might not be the best or right choices for their standards, but at a certain point all the major browsers and platforms have to get behind something that's good enough so that when users hit the web or load a video, it just plays.

Firefox should add H.264 support as well. It's time to check that box off and start arguing about the next one. 3D or a smell plugin or something...

[TechCrunch, fsfe.org via Microsoft blogs, 9to5Mac]

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Rene Ritchie

EiC of iMore, EP of Mobile Nations, Apple analyst, co-host of Debug, Iterate, Vector, Review, and MacBreak Weekly podcasts. Cook, grappler, photon wrangler. Follow him on Twitter and Google+.

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Reader comments

H.264 ascendant: why Apple's no-Flash, no-Theora gamble is playing off


"Firefox should add H.264 support as well. It’s time to check that box off and start arguing about the next one"
Why? Firefox as a rule supports an open web environment. H.264 isn't open or free, so it would run contrary to their principles...

whats the big deal with H.264 every time i enable it on youtube, all the videos that use it become all laggy and irritating to watch, i would rather use flash

This has less to do with Apple and more to do with Google. Youtube encoding their videos to h.264 both inside of mp4 and flv files have to do with the overwhelming percentage. Also "hd" quality encodings for the scene and anime fan-subs have increased dramatically based on the amount of hd quality content avialable.

What many people don't undersatand is that "open standard" does not mean it is free. For example, the MPEG standard (ISO 11172) has over 50 patents that must be licensed in order to implement it. I know because I was on the standards committee that approved it (SC 21, WG 11)
And can you guess who is one of the major patent holders against X.264? (Hint: it rhymes with grapple).
Good guess.
Patents are "open technology". That means that anyone can read them. The stated purpose of the patent system is to share technology so other people can licence it and build upon it.
Apple has a track record of using patents for purely predatory purposes. Ask HTC.

Give credit to Flash for those numbers. Years back it allowed h.264 and people started encoding to it for higher quality streams.
I build video players regularly and very seldom deal with flv's but when I do it simply plays them all flawlessly.
I look forward to HTML video players but what you don't point out is the browser adoption. IE 6 still runs rampant and the masses simply will not or cannot upgrade just cuz Site XYZ wants to use HTML vs Flash.
Bigger picture here. We'll get there but 66% means jack, honestly.

Apple has 1 patent in the H.264 patent pool. Microsoft has a lot more patents in the pool, probably 50. The biggest patent holders in the pool are the hardware makers Samsung, LG, Panasonic, Sharp et al. The majority patent holders look to be Fraunhofer and Panasonic with what looks to be over 100 patents in the pool.
H.264 is winning because it is supported by the everyone. Hence the pool.
The issues around Ogg violating some patent or patents in the H.264 pool is old. Jobs only revealed that the MPEG LA is beginning to take action. That's the only news.

A little clarification though on H.264 and Apple:
"If a video is H264, that doesn’t mean it can play on the iPhone. If you look at the iPhone specs, you’ll see the only support a subset of what H264 offers, specifically 2 major components to quality video: Using a maximum of the Baseline profile, with Simple for higher bitrates/resolutions, as well as 2.5 for maximum (ish) bitrate.
Not all H264 videos conform to these specs. YouTube converted a lot of their Spark (Flash 6/7) videos to H264 to support iPhone because there was money to be gained in the large investment. Even so, not all YouTube videos work on the iPhone, in part because of the aforementioned reasons. There is a reason why when you upload a H264 video to YouTube, they’ll often re-encode it.
Most importantly, HTML5 currently has no universal DRM solution. That is why Flash Player’s RTMPE, and soon HTTP Streaming via Project Zeri, are the de-facto standard today. Those who deploy video content they either own or license the rights to will not utilize HTML5 because it cannot be protected. There is a reason you rent videos in iTunes using their ACC format vs. straight H264. Legally, those videos CANNOT be utilized via HTML5."

Is there any way you guys at TiPb would hire me as an editor? This blog post has at least 3 grammatical errors. Shouldn't the title be '...paying off' and not '...playing off?'

If you read Job's open letter he specified that there was a hardware decoder for h264. Where as flash did not have that capability and had to be decoded in software. I'd rather have the hardware decoded video, frankly.

Lots of confusion here. H.264 and Ogg are codecs. Flash, HTML5, qt are players. Flash uses h.264 too.
There are two battles on going, the web player and the codec for HTML5.
Apple made a choice between investing in Ogg to flesh out any unknown patent issues and prong it up to speed or invest into a known codec. Open source is all fine, but sometimes as a businesss it makes sense to put your money on the known technology.

Old news? No, not really. Every few months, somebody makes insinuations against Ogg. Nobody ever acts on them, because the insinuations are baseless and dishonest. Nobody needs to act on them, because tech and fan sites will report breathlessly on patent "risks" when time and time again there has been nothing found. But who needs honest action when you can just sow groundless feat for the same effect?
The only news here is that Saint Steven, not BillG, is the one doing the BS spreading, which makes legions of fanboys accept it uncritically as truth.

Adobe, if they really had any brains, would open source Flash in exchange for Theora becoming the gold standard for video in HTML5 and Flash becoming an HTML5 standard. It would end up making Adobe boocoo bucks, it would obligate Apple to put Flash on their devices, and it would also hurt Apple for being a major partner in being HTML5.
That's the only way Adobe will make it in the war against Apple, otherwise they will get wiped out.

problem 1 : H264 is not free to encode. Any commercial usage or indirect commercial usage (indirect income) is prohibitied, without paying fees.
problem 2 : I encounter often with youtube on my iphone that it sometimes stucks, the video won't play further. I don't know if it's the iphone-h264 player or the h264-codec itself, but it sucks and this with every latest firmware i had (3gs). Flash on my desktop-pc plays to 99% flawless.
conclusion...h264 sucks. Bring something else Apple!

Reading the comments here it amazes me how much people DON'T know about history, licensing, and other facets when it comes to open source technology.
1) As someone mentioned earlier, SEVERAL companies have claimed that various pieces of open source software violate their patents, but when it eventually makes it to court the accusing party can never produce such evidence.
2) H.264 is NOT free, and the licensing body has said that they COULD charge for it at some point in the future. It's like Mp3, Mp3 is NOT a free codec but does in fact require a license to implement. In fact, on your iPhone goto Settings -> General -> About -> Legal and scroll down until you see the part about the MPEG Layer-3 audio coding. Notice how it says "licensed"?
3) Mozilla will not implement H.264 without a fight because it's a open source company that will ALWAYS pick a free, non-licenseable solution (in this case Theora).
4) Steve Job's little rant is filled with NUMEROUS half truths. For instance, Flash DOES have hardware acceleration they've had it on Windows for months now. Apple JUST RECENTLY allowed access to the hardware in the latest APIs on OSX, so this wasn't Adobe's fault it was Apple's, period.
All this being said, Steve Jobs is taking a people in the right direction and at the very least getting people talking about open standards as opposed to closed ones. But if he wanted to really push open standards why wouldn't he push Theora since it's is free, open sourced, and void of the kind of licensing that comes with using H.264? I think that's an important question that someone should find a non-fanboy answer to.

Nikunj Malik, Firefox don't care about "proprietry", there just sucking up a bit to their open-source fans.
Firefox is the most commercial, and profitable, browser - in history.

I think you guys are nuts to think the industry will support Theora. The ship has already sailed. H.264 hardware is everywhere. Theora hardware is not. The industry controls H.264 through the MPEG LA.
If Adobe adopts Theora as the video codec in Flash, I think the veiled threats will become real lawsuits. Not to mention that it'll set back Flash 4 years or more to get hardware decode for Theora. You think Flash with H.264 is tough on hardware, Flash with Theora is going to bring modern Macs to their knees. ;)
With IE9, Chrome and Safari supporting H.264, Mozilla and Opera basically have no choice. Once, Microsoft said that IE9 will only support H.264 video and no other codec, it's over. Opera and Firefox can continue to stand behind their politics, but they'll be irrelevant stands.