Sunday, March 28, 2010

It used to be that human communication was limited to the range of one's voice. Writing changed that and the ripples of this innovation are still expanding outward. Initially, any literate person could write to others using paper and pen. Transcending death itself, these letters could be quite persistent but were still limited in range. Gutenberg's press and its successors extended the range of human communication to potentially include all other literate persons on planet Earth. However, the ability to print words and distribute them in the form of books, magazines etc. was in the hands of only a few and subject to various limitations ranging from qualitative filtering to outright censorship. Finally, the desktop (computer) publishing and Internet revolutions of the 1980s and 1990s made it possible for anyone to print and distribute their words on a worldwide basis. The constraints upon written communication may have been minimized as much as they possibly can.

Still, the audience had to be somewhat literate. Without universal literacy, written communications may have reached their limit.

Enter video. Thanks again to the computer and internet revolutions, we have a method of communication that is not constrained by literacy. Some video doesn't even require spoken language to make a point. Where spoken language is required, the fact that video can have multiple, selectable language tracks seems a better, less costly solution than printing books in multiple languages. Not even Esperanto could save us from the Tower of Babel incident but perhaps some day we will have a universal spoken language.

So video may be seen as a more powerful and more universal medium of communication. That's the good part. The bad part is that, unlike our written and spoken languages, video may not be entirely unencumbered. I'm ignoring the fact that some font faces are encumbered by copyright because there are plenty that are not and there is no compelling reason to choose one over the other in written communications.

The composition and publishing of video necessarily entails compression and decompression and that requires software called a CODEC. Video also requires a container format examples of which include MPEG-4, Ogg, QuickTime, Flash, Silverlight and so on. Thus, all Internet video is some combination of container and CODEC(s). It's mostly the CODECs that are encumbered by patents and this is the focus of our concern about open and unfettered communication in the Internet video age.

Recognizing the fact that using video was a complicated process involving web browser plug-ins that present stability and security hazards as well as multiple lines of complex code, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) sought to make video as simple to use as including a still image. The first major upgrade to the HTML standard in more than ten years, HTML 5, presented the perfect opportunity to do just that.

Not only does the HTML 5 video element simplify including video in a web page, it also eliminates the need for video plug-in or 'helper' applications such as Flash, the QuickTime Plug-in and Silverlight. Web browser plug-ins are a continuing source of performance issues(slowdowns and even crashing) and security threats. The HTML 5 video element promised to make it possible for more people to use video to communicate and to help their audiences as well.

However, the key piece to this scheme involved web browsers standardizing on a single video CODEC and container. The two main contenders for this were and still are: a) MPEG-4/H.264 (video)/AAC (audio) and b) Ogg/Theora (video) /Vorbis (audio). Unfortunately, the W3C group working on the video element, unable to agree on one, specified neither. The unresolved issue was not about open standards. Both options are open standards. The unresolved issue was about patents. No one argues that H.264 is patent-free, not even in the face of MPEGLA's recent announcement that it would not charge royalties for Internet video that is free to end users through 2016. Proponents of Ogg claim that it is patent-free. However, there is significant skepticism surrounding that claim.

Work-arounds have been developed such as the Google code cited below but the originally intended simplicity and elegance have eluded us. Worse, there is the prospect of having to pay directly or indirectly for the privilege of communicating with video. Imagine if we faced that prospect with words in the form of text on a web page? The time for governments to review and rescind copyright and patents for software may be at hand. What do you think?

Dive Into HTML 5:
Video on the Web
Daring Fireball (John Gruber):
Why the HTML 5 'Video' Element is Effectively Unusable, Even in Browsers that Support It.
Brian Crescimanno:
Dear Mozilla, Please Don't Kill HTML 5 Video!
MPEG LAs AVC License Will Continue Not to Charge Royalties for Internet Video that is Free to End Users
HTML5 Video Element
Daring Fireball (John Gruber):
GIF, H.264 and Patents
Daring Fireball (John Gruber):
On Submarine Patents vis-a-vis H.264 and Ogg Theora
HTML Video and Audio for Everyone

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