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...