Firefox 17 for Android Now Supports H.264 Video

Mozilla said on Thursday that Firefox 17 for Android now supports HTML5-based H.264 video playback. Prior to this release, web developers have relied on Adobe Flash to bring H.264 content to compatible smartphones and tablets. But with Flash no longer receiving support from Adobe for the Android platform, another content delivery solution was needed.

Earlier this year, Mozilla wanted to only support open-source, patent-free video codecs in its browser, and pushed really hard to make that happen. But the majority of the web didn't buy it, and now relies on the license-heavy H.264 codec. Mozilla finally decided to fully support H.264 in Firefox once the studio realized Google wasn't going to drop support in Chrome and stick to using its own HTML5 video codec, WebM, as originally promised.

Although Mozilla reportedly has the money to pay for H.264 licensing, the company has chosen to allow the browser to access the codec from the desktop operating system rather than bake it straight into the browser itself. Most Android devices support H.264 decoding on a hardware level, making it even easier Mozilla to flip the switch on in Firefox for Android and use the system's "Stagefright" library.

According to Mozilla, Firefox currently supports H.264 playback on any device running Android 4.1 (Jelly Bean) and any Samsung device running Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich). To test whether Firefox supports H.264 on a compatible device, try playing this "Big Buck Bunny" video.

"We have temporarily blocked non-Samsung devices running Ice Cream Sandwich until we can fix or workaround some bugs," Mozilla said. "Support for Gingerbread and Honeycomb devices is planned for a later release." (Bug 787228)

If an Android device currently isn't supported, curious users can still manually turn on H.264 playback for testing by first entering "about:config" in the address bar, searching for "stagefright", and then toggling the "stagefright.force-enabled" preference to "true". H.264 playback should work on most Ice Cream Sandwich devices, but it will likely crash on those powered by Honeycomb (v3.x) and Gingerbread (v2.3).

"If Firefox does not recognize your hardware decoder, it will use a safer (but slower) software decoder," the company said. "Daring users can manually enable hardware decoding. Enter about:config as described above and search for 'stagefright'. To force hardware video decoding, change the “media.stagefright.omxcodec.flags” preference to 16. The default value is 0, which will try the hardware decoder and fall back to the software decoder if there are problems." (Bug 797225)

Videos with green lines or crashes will be the most likely problems users will encounter, Mozilla said. Firefox for Android users are encouraged to file a bug report so that the team can quickly support the codec on more configurations. The report should include the device model, Android OS version, the URL of the video, and any about:config preferences that were changed.


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Kevin started taking PCs apart in the 90s when Quake was on the way and his PC lacked the required components. Since then, he’s loved all things PC-related and cool gadgets ranging from the New Nintendo 3DS to Android tablets. He is currently a contributor at Digital Trends, writing about everything from computers to how-to content on Windows and Macs to reviews of the latest laptops from HP, Dell, Lenovo, and more. 

  • skaz
    Awesome. Hope text reflow is next on the fix list.
  • razor512
    And still no tab bar. Why is it that Mozilla can figure out how to add a tab bar in their desktop browser but not the mobile browser? When using a browser, I want my tabs 1 click away, not in some menu that I have to go through, tablets offer enough screen space to have a tab bar eg the stock android tablet browser
  • john15v16
    Firefox is behind the market curve because of their lack of foresight to take advantage of the mobile web market when it first began to go really mainstream...I'm not impressed...they should be further ahead than they are....
  • mitch074
    @john15v16: Mozilla has been working to bring Firefox to the mobile market for a long, long time; however, they've been thwarted:
    - first by Apple, who modified their app store developer terms in such a way that Firefox could NEVER be added to the app store. As a matter of fact, Google Chrome on iOS is "Safari with lipstick and handbrake"
    - then by Android, and its fragmented market. Please note that Google, who is the DEVELOPER for Android, ported Chrome to version 4.0 and later, but not earlier. Note also that Chrome is NOT free software, and phones your usage home to Google.
    - Microsoft forbids browsers other than IE to run on Windows RT or Windows Mobile 7 and 8.

    As such, Firefox is currently the most versatile, advanced, modern browser on mobile.
  • Pherule
    I always thought it was stupid for any browser to endorse a propriety format like H.264 when there are alternatives.

    Then I realized yesterday that H.264 is mp4, which is the best video format available. A 50MB mp4 video will be 100+ MB in any other format - identical size, identical video & audio quality.

    Now I just wish H.264 was open source.
  • mitch074
    @Pherule: don't mix "open source" and "public domain" - one of the best H.264 codecs out there currently is called x264. It is open source, and can be downloaded in source form very easily. However, H.264 is a particular version of the MPEG-4 format: it includes stuff like lossless video coding and other advanced techniques which were absent from its predecessor, which was also called MPEG-4, but was covered by the H.263 specification... One of the most well-known implementations of H.263 is DivX. Since H.263 was not finalized by the time codecs started appearing, it was very hard to establish what patents was owned by whom, and as such projects such as XviD were pretty much left alone.
    However, for H.264, several companies pooled their patents together and started charging fees for any kind of usage or even handling of H.264: they actually pooled their patents and THEN wrote the specification - and then started going aggressively after any usage of H.264 that didn't get them a dime.

    Such as Internet streaming.

    This didn't sit well with Youtube's owner Google, who was forced to pay MILLIONS each year for the right to encode, stream and display videos. And so, Google started pushing other, open-source and patent unencumbered formats like Theora (roughly equivalent to DivX5 in size to quality ratio) then VP8/WebM (roughly equivalent to H.264 when using one of the latter's poorest codecs, but quite a bit behind x264).

    And suddenly, you could watch streamed H.264 videos for free - only browser makers had to pay for the patents. Microsoft didn't hesitate (they are part of the fund), Apple did like Microsoft, Google left WebM perish slowly and simply didn't provide their H.264 decoder with Chromium's (Chrome's really open source version) source code.

    However, Firefox is COMPLETELY open source - they CANNOT pay for a license to the MPEG-LE group, because they don't know how many copies they distribute, and it goes against their policy. However, mobile phones and most desktop computers do implement a hardware decoder: as such, their owner already paid for the right to unpack and watch H.264 video, and the streaming itself is now irrevocably free. So, Firefox Mobile captures the H.264 flux, sends it untouched to the hardware decompressor, and gets back a non-H.264, uncompressed video stream. If the device has no H.264 decompression capabilities though, you're out of luck.