updated 04:05 pm EDT, Wed March 14, 2012
Mozilla may add H.264 to Firefox after all
Mozilla research director Andreas Gal has proposed a rare change of heart that could see Boot2Gecko, and possibly Firefox, adopt H.264 playback. The mode would let HTML5 pages use the video tag for in-page H.264 as long as the OS underneath already supports the codec. At least in theory, it would let Mozilla officially keep active support only for open formats like WebM while acknowledging the reality of H.264's much wider reach.
"I don't think this bug significantly changes our position on open video," Gal wrote in a discussion list. "We will continue to promote and support open codecs, but when and where existing codecs are already installed and licensed on devices we will make use of them in order to provide people with the best possible experience."
Fellow Mozilla developer Asa Dotzler agreed with the idea on mobile, although he noted that it would be "problematic" for the desktop. Newer operating systems like Windows 7 have built-in H.264 support, but older ones like Windows XP don't. Web developers could encounter problems, as they couldn't count on a Firefox user seeing H.264 video. Android has always supported H.264 and wouldn't have the same problem.
Mozilla has only ever supported WebM for HTML5 video on the view that it wanted "unencumbered" formats that didn't require paying for a license if it was directly implemented. Gal, however, said that Google had undermined WebM by backtracking on its intention to pull H.264 from Chrome to steer support for WebM, the codec which it owned. Trying to make a stand on ideology wouldn't work given how popular H.264 was and how little Google played a part.
"Google pledged many things they didn't follow through with and our users and our project are paying the price," he added. "H.264 wont go away. Holding out just a little longer buys us exactly nothing."
While other parts of the Mozilla team were concerned about allowing H.264 as a possible compromise of values, it acknowledged that withholding support was so far having little effect. As most sites with HTML5 video either support Flash first or consider it a fallback, many Firefox owners still end up supporting H.264 as implemented through a Flash wrapper. On both the desktop and mobile alike, it likewise leads to lower battery life, slower performance, more crashes, and security vulnerabilities.
Whether or not it makes the choice now, Mozilla may have to consider alternatives in the near future. MPEG-LA members have said that WebM's base may violate patents and that Google, as well as other WebM supporters, may have to pay royalties regardless. Google has repeatedly insisted that WebM was patent-free, but it hasn't provided definitive proof.
Apple and Microsoft, both of whom are MPEG-LA members, officially back H.264 and have paid licenses. [via Ars Technica]