Mozilla Changes Firefox Video Policy: Native Support For H.264

What makes this announcement so special is the fact that H.264 was labeled the bad boy among video formats not too long ago, as it is protected by a myriad of patents held by companies such as Apple and Microsoft, and therefore is under a constant threat of potential licensing fees. Yet Mozilla now feels compelled that H.264 is the way to go. CTO Brendan Eich indicated in a lengthy blog post that Mozilla isn't happy with the way Google has handled WebM as a full alternative for web video and has not followed through with its promise, which has left Mozilla under a threat of being abandoned in no-man's land between Google and Microsoft.

According to Mozilla chairman Mitchell Baker, not supporting H.264 "has not worked" and Mozilla has decided to ship a product that people should want. "Our first approach at bringing open codecs to the Web has ended up at an impasse on mobile, but we’re not done yet," Baker wrote. "We shouldn’t beat ourselves up for somehow failing to live up to Mozilla’s values.  We’ll find a way around this impasse."

In a much more detailed post, Eich lists the reasons why H.264 is the only option for mobile at this time and indicates that desktop may be impacted as well.

Specifically, Mozilla is disappointed that Google has not followed through with its promise to from January 2011 that it will drop H.264 in favor of WebM from its browser. While Mozilla "fought against the odds" and "carried the unencumbered HTML5 <video> torch even when it burned [their] hands", Eich said that Google followed a two-way road in which Chrome still supports H.264 video and Firefox relies on Flash as a fallback option for H.264 video. That is an inconvenience on desktop, but a problem on mobile, because Adobe announced that it is not actively developing Flash for mobile anymore. Both the default browser on Android and Chrome for Android run H.264 natively.

Eich believes that Google has no reason to drop H.264 on mobile devices, because that would impact their ability to gain market share as H.264 uses "far less battery than alternative decoders", Eich said. For Mozilla, which follows a core platform strategy for all Firefox browsers, there is suddenly the question whether to support WebM in favor of H.264 across all its products. For mobile, Eich says that "H.264 is absolutely required right now to compete on mobile", but there is plenty of room to speculate that he has similar thoughts for H.264 on the desktop browser as well, even if the option to wait do to available Flash development is clearly there. He promised that H.264 support won't cost Firefox users money and it appears that he is counting on an expiring patent before any payments would be due anyway.

For Google, Mozilla's complaint is a dent for the credibility of the Chrome strategy and the pro-open source campaign. If Mozilla drops WebM entirely, WebM is practically dead. Firefox isn't significant in market share on mobile devices, but it is the 25 percent wild card on the desktop. Google will only be able to help WebM survive with the support of Mozilla, which gives Google/Mozilla about 55 percent of the total browser market (according to StatCounter). Without Mozilla, WebM drops to 30 percent and H.264 rises to 70 percent of the market.

Douglas Perry is an author and journalist from Portland, Oregon. His many articles have appeared in the likes of Tom's Guide, Tom's Hardware, The Oregonian, and several newspapers. He has covered topics including security, hardware, and cars, and has written five books. In his spare time, he enjoys watching The Sopranos.

  • christarp
    "but shift its attention to H.265 video, especially on mobile devices."

    How are these sort of things overlooked?
  • memadmax
    Hmm, interesting.
    Looks like another codec war is brewing...
  • phatboe
    This is a sad day for Open Codecs. As much as I hate Mozilla's change of heart to including H.264 support I understand why they are doing this. I agree with Mozilla, Google needs to drop H.264 support now else WebM will never gain acceptance. If Mozilla wants to remain a key player in the web browser market they will need to support what ever format is being used the most.
  • mrpijey
    If Google drops h264, then I'll drop Google. I can understand the debacle sorrounding licenses etc on h264, but it's become a defacto standard on the net, going against that will only hurt Google, especially when everyone else goes the other way. Open stuff is useless unless enough big hitters follow and support it so it can become a well used standard.
  • synd
    h264 ftw!
  • cookoy
    this reminded me of the story on OS/2 when IBM and Microsoft were jointly co-developing. Then the bombshell. MS unveiled its Windows and IBM is left holding the OS/2 bag. It's good Mozilla is not blind to these kind of backstabbing deals.
  • frenchy
    From another perspective, it will be nice not having to make 3 different video files (mp4, Ogg, webM) so that a website doesn't require flash for playback. One video file used with HTML5 video tags makes things simpler.
  • ravewulf
    I never understood why Firefox wouldn't at least support h.264/aac/mp3 if it was installed in the OS's audio/video subsystem or use ffmpeg. Especially when vp8 is only roughly equivalent to h.264 baseline in terms of compression and the code is a mess. On the other hand, I would like to see more support for mkv (the container format behind webm). Basically, I want the best format ignoring licensing bs.
  • vickonl
    But.. is Theora (ogg/ogv) already dead?
    I'm almost finished with converting a few 100 MPGs to OGVs.I have an external HDD with portable FireFox and with HTML5 I have made a nice looking portable videoplayer that will run with no troubles on any Windows PC.

    Well it looks like theora will lose (with webm), so I should start converting again, this time to MP4 I quess. :(
  • milk_inc
    Maybe they will use h.264, but using the codec x264 that until I know is free and open, maybe is the main reason they will change too for h.264.