Betrayed by Google, Mozilla Abandons HTML5 Video Fight

Firefox will support H.264 in the future, on mobiles and desktops

It's official, Mozilla will start supporting the proprietary H.264 video codec at first on mobile devices that come with hardware decoding and encoding for the format. Moving forward, solutions will be drawn for the desktop version of Firefox as well, though the avenue for doing this hasn't been chosen yet.

Mozilla leaders and contributors were engaged in a heated debate over the past week over whether the organization should start building support for H.264 for HTML5 video into Firefox, either by relying on external codecs, software or hardware, or even by licensing the codec and bundling it with Firefox.

"Mozilla is on the cusp of changing our policy about our use of video codecs and making use of a format  known as 'H.264'," Mitchell Baker, chair of the Mozilla Foundation, wrote.

"We have tried to avoid this for a number of years, as H.264 is encumbered by patents.  The state of video on the Web today and in mobile devices in particular is pushing us to change our policy," she added.

Google promised to drop H.264 but never delivered

While some people may be disappointed by the conclusion, there is no other way around it. The fact is, H.264 is here to stay and there is nothing that can happen in the foreseeable future that is going to change that.

A year ago, things were looking good, or at least better. Google had poured a huge chunk of money into buying the company behind the VP8 codec which it then open-sourced as part of the WebM project.

In early 2011, Google announced that it would be dropping support for H.264 in Chrome and instead only support open codecs. A year later, this hasn't happened, Chrome still supports all codecs for HTML5 video.

Even if Google were to drop H.264, the videos would just use Flash, which comes bundled with Chrome, making the move pointless.

Firefox is holding HTML5 video back by having to rely on Flash

This leaves Mozilla to fight the good fight alone and for no reason. In practice, when Firefox users stumble upon a video that is encoded with H.264, they get served a Flash version of that video.

In effect, Firefox is the browser keeping the transition to HTML5 video from moving faster, as Chrome, Safari and even IE would be able to play HTML5 videos encoded with H.264, while web developers would have to rely on Flash in Firefox.

Mobile devices don't have hardware acceleration for VP8

The main hurdle though is the mobile space. All smartphones today have the ability to decode H.264 video via dedicated hardware.

This saves battery life and also provides a huge performance boosts over using a software renderer relying on the CPU, which is what happens with WebM video. In contrast, few mobile phones, if any, come with hardware accelerated VP8 decoding, and even if they do, they do it in addition to H.264 support.

With mobile devices becoming more numerous than PCs and Mozilla aiming to build a presence in the mobile space, not supporting H.264 is a suicide move.

Mozilla has never ignored market share

"Mozilla has never ignored users or market share. We do not care only about market share, but ignoring usability and market share can easily lead to extinction. Without users our mission is meaningless and our ability to affect the evolution of open standards goes to zero," Mozilla CTO Brendan Eich, inventor of JavaScript and founder of Mozilla, explained.

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