The Mozilla Foundation is putting its weight behind an effort to create an open video format on the Web. It is doing this by giving $100,000 in grant money, to be administered by the Wikimedia Foundation, towards the development and support of Theora, an open-source video codec. More importantly, it is also building support into the Firefox Web browser for both Theora and Vorbis, an open source audio codec.
Many other video codecs and encoders require licensing fees or come with restrictions. Mozilla hopes to change this over time. Although I suspect the Theora video codec is inferior to other technologies, as long as it can improve over time, it could eventually become a serious contender to MPEG-4 or Windows Media Video (WMV).
Evangelist Christopher Blizzard explains why Mozilla is backing open video in a long and windy post:
Although videos are available on the web via sites like youtube, they don’t share the same democratized characteristics that have made the web vibrant and distributed. And it shows. That centralization has created some interesting problems that have symptoms like censorship via abuse of the DMCA and an overly-concentrated audience on a few sites that have the resources and technology to host video. I believe that problems like the ones we see with youtube are a symptom of the larger problem of the lack of decentralization and competition in video technology – very different than where the rest of the web is today.
In my mind there are two things that help drive that kind of decentralization:
* You should be able to easily understand how something moves from a computer-readable format to something that is presented to a user. For example, turning HTML into a document, turning a JPEG file into a picture on the screen or using HTTP to download a file.
* You must be able to implement and deliver that technology without requiring anyone’s permission or license. In reality this means that it should be available on a royalty-free basis and without encumbered documentation.
In the video world, there are some formats that fit the first quality: Some formats are documented, understood and even widely deployed. But more often than not they are subject to to per-unit royalties, large up-front fees and creating content in those formats (the encoders) are often so expensive as to be prohibitive to all but only the deepest-pocketed corporations or well-funded startups. And there are very few video formats that meet the second. This is not the kind of decentralization that made the web thrive. It is quite the opposite.
Beyond the compression algorithms, what is especially exciting about Theora is that as an open-source project it might be easier for it to eventually evolve into a format that can more easily interact directly with other documents and data types on the Web. Videos should include more hyperlinks, for instance, and become part of the very fabric of the Web rather than an exception, which is still how it is treated today.