Myths debunked: YouTube, please use Ogg Theora for HTML 5

Posted: 2009-09-08

It's incredible how many people are sympathetic towards Google and Apple's opposition of Ogg Theora within the HTML 5 codec debate. Of course, nobody expected anything else from Apple, but Google, really? Outside of YouTube, Google seems to be very supportive. YouTube may still be somewhat separated from the rest of Google. The site still looks more like it did pre-aquisition than it looks like a Google project. The Google Chrome web browser, a "pure" Google project, supports Theora, and a blog post Google made on the Ogg Theora book sprint which specifically makes mention of HTML 5 leads me to wonder if they might actually be planning on supporting it. Then again, this claim by a Googler on the WhatWG mailing list makes me worry:

"If [youtube] were to switch to theora and maintain even a semblance of the current youtube quality it would take up most available bandwidth across the Internet." --Chris DiBona
All right, it's time to fight back against this FUD and address every argument made against Ogg Theora for HTML 5 and YouTube. The whole point of the HTML 5 video tag is to eliminate the need for proprietary Flash plugins so are we really going to replace one proprietary piece of technology with yet another piece of proprietary technology? What would be the point of that? Have we not already seen enough of the problems posed by relying on proprietary standards? Then again, HTML 4 didn't mandate support for JPEG and PNG, so gaining support doesn't necessarily depend on becoming the official standard.
  1. Video quality (and high definition)
    • Firstly, even if Ogg Theora's video quality was less than ideal, this is a web standard we're discussing here. It isn't about the highest quality format of the moment. The purpose of a standard is to allow everyone to take part and rely on it. A patent encumbered format does no good for this. Freedom and transparency are essential for a standard. We wouldn't have the world wide web or TCP/IP networks if competing companies were in a constant battle trying to outdo each other's protocols and hardware. Nobody is forced to use the HTML 5 standard; if Apple is so afraid of Theora's success, they can go ahead and use their format of choice or continue to rely on Flash.
    • Secondly, Theroa will continue improving, and will improve faster if it gains more support. Open formats like this can evolve for a reason. Video quality will improve, just like the HTML standard itself has grown and changed. Agreeing on an open format for a standard is done to promote mass adoption which allows for widespread use unencumbered by patents and without similar restrictions. If a proprietary format is used, who will improve upon it? Only the intellectual imaginary property "owners" will be able to, and that doesn't mean they ever will. Theora might not be the very best right now, but it will be.
    • Finally, although Theora is not yet at the same level as H.264, claiming that its quality is so inferior is a lie. Not only is it not far behind, but it is already better than what YouTube currently uses. What about high definition, you ask? Although it is still not ideal for HD content, being slightly behind H.264, Theora roughly equals YouTube HD video quality already. Most of the problems it had were inherited from the codec it is based off of, and those problems are disappearing thanks to support from from the Mozilla and Wikimedia Foundations with the upcoming version 1.1 of Theora. This is the overhaul containing a major rewrite bringing big improvements and lots of new features like two-pass encoding and adaptive quantization. Theora has a balance between quality, performance, size, and simplicity which makes it ideal for web video.
  2. Patents
    • To refuse to implement a royalty free codec under the guise of "patent safety" is ridiculous. Apple wouldn't bundle Samba with OSX if they were that afraid of patents. Yes, submarine patents could possibly exist, but then again they are always a possibility, and not just for Theora, but for many formats. The algorithms Theora uses are not new. If, down the road, some patent-troll does in fact appear, whatever patent they hold would likely expire when brought to light.
  3. Hardware Acceleration
    • Yeah, yeah, Apple is understandably against using Theora becuse of this, but this isn't much of a reason against it becoming a standard. Again, keep in mind the most important thing is not the absolute best quality and performance, although Theora is already pretty good as it is, but rather freedom and independence from proprietary technologies.
    • Most of the affordable portable media players, "MP4 Players", support Vorbis without advertising it. The sole manufacturer of all the chips simply included it. It might take a while, but hardware support for Theora will come, and we could see it sooner if it became more popular. There is already an open source VHDL code base for a hardware Theora decoder in development and it's worth mentioning that decoding Theora is less CPU intensive than decoding H.264.
  4. Dirac, On2 and other Open Formats
    • Dirac is for high definition video archiving, not streaming. Nothing is wrong with other open formats, but Theora is already the best candidate with the most support.
    • Google did recently acquire On2, a company which owns more advanced codecs, and actually created the codec which Theora is based off of. There is speculation that Google will offer them as free formats, and as awesome as that would be, we can't really act on what they might do.
  5. Everyone already has Flash
    • This is probably the dumbest argument i've heard. Of course, Flash isn't going anywhere overnight, but online video will shift to use the HTML 5 video tag. A quarter of the world's web browsers already support Ogg Theora with no plugins required. YouTube and other sites won't just drop Flash support one day; like Dailymotion, they will begin by offering HTML 5 video in addition to Flash. From there, HTML 5 gives us so many possibilities: no additional software needed, easily created player skins, dynamic content injection, and the ability to manipulate videos, just to name a few.
YouTube already has an HTML 5 demo using MP4 and appears to be preparing to expand it to the entire site. Google could single-handedly make Theora the dominant format for online video distribution and pressure all browsers-- that includes Microsoft's Internet Explorer-- to support it. Hopefully, we can convince them to do so. It's now clear that there is no real reason for them to choose H.264 over Theora, but what reasons are there for them to actively support and push for Theora? Huge positive publicity in the short term and compatability in the long-term. Admittedly, not too much, but Google has always shown great commitment towards open source, and it is strange that the extent of their commitment would be cut short here. YouTube using Ogg Theora with HTML 5 on their site will truly have a huge impact. Come on Google, "Don't be evil".

So far, only one large video host, Dailymotion, supports HTML 5 with Theora, as well as The Video Bay. In addition, there is also Wikimedia Commons, The Internet Archive, and Tinyvid, but it doesn't end there. Ogg Thoera and Vorbis are also supported by big projects like OLPC, Jabber, the Mozilla Foundation, and the Wikimedia Foundation. Their support is vital in showing that these formats are a viable and good choice for multimedia, but we still need the big dogs with the big bucks.

Now, what can we do to push Youtube along with other large video hosts and advertising services to move towards full HTML5 and Theora support? If you use YouTube or another major video host that doesn't offer HTML 5 with Theora, post a video explaining your support. We need organized effective ways for people to convince these sites to publish in free formats. Please post additional ideas and feedback in the comments.