Firefox and its limited HTML 5 video support

If you are looking for a technical post about the intricacies of HTML 5 video and the coding that goes with it, this is really not the post for you. If that is what you want, take a look at the video category page on Mozilla Hacks as well as your favourite HTML 5 resource.

Both YouTube and Vimeo have announced support for HTML 5 video on their sites. This is great news for people who are not Flash fans, especially when it comes to videos online. It is also good news for HTML 5 adoption overall. Hopefully we will start to see more and more services begin to support other HTML 5 aspects like the offline capability (would make Gears unnecessary and enable offline capability for Gmail, GCal and other similar services). My wish for 2010 is to have offline support for my Google Apps. Gears is probably the only thing I miss in Firefox 3.6 and Mac OS 10.6 generally.

I was a little disappointed when I read that YouTube and Vimeo only support Chrome and Safari in their HTML 5 roll-out. My first question was why Firefox isn’t supported. Firefox 3.6 has just been released and it supports HTML 5 video, so why isn’t it on the list. After posting a silly question in the comments to the Vimeo post that sounded like it came from a wounded Firefox user, I read the post and comments properly and linked to this page which talks about HTML 5 video in more detail.

It turns out that HTML 5 video support has a lot to do with the underlying video codecs (the HTML 5 specification seems to be agnostic when it comes to video codec support). Safari and Chrome both support the .mp4 video codec which is what YouTube and Vimeo use on their sites. Firefox only supports (I’m going to mangle this, so apologies in advance) Ogg Theora video codecs which are open source codecs, along with Chrome. This means that Firefox won’t support the HTML 5 capability on YouTube or Vimeo as long as those sites don’t support Ogg Theora video codecs. Chrome is a winner in this area because it supports both codecs. Update: Interesting discussion about video codecs/formats at the bottom of this post.

It struck me that Firefox’s lack of support for the .mp4 video format is pretty limiting considering that .mp4 is practically a standard on video sharing sites like YouTube and Vimeo. It would relegate Firefox to 2nd place, if that, for people who watch a lot of video and may transition across to HTML 5 based video as their medium of choice. I’m not too keen on this lack of support either. I am a big Firefox fan and after a while in the browser wilderness, I returned to Firefox as my default browser in a big way. Chrome is my second choice and I often have both browsers running because Chrome seems to handle Google sites a little better sometimes. Safari is around for the odd time I want to use it.

Firefox logo-only.pngI did a little research (for a change) and discovered that there are royalties attached to the .mp4 video format. These royalties apply to video creators and distributors. Google and Apple license the technology (H.264, I believe) and can support the formats in Chrome and Safari (respectively). Firefox presumably doesn’t license the codec and therefore doesn’t support the format. Ogg Theora, on the other hand, is open source and no royalties are involved. I don’t know if this is because the royalties are prohibitive (it appears that royalties are going to increase in 2011 when what seems to be a royalty relaxation goes away) or for philosophical reasons (although I am sure that supporting an open source codec is a real motivation, just not sure whether it is the overriding motivation). It would obviously be ideal to see broader support for Ogg Theora from an accessibility perspective but I have read that H.264 offers more flexibility.

Whatever the motivation, video codec support will be one of the factors influencing browser adoption and more and more online services support HTML 5 video. It also either be a catalyst for further decline in Firefox adoption in favour of Chrome (on this front, Chrome seems to be ahead of practically all the other browsers) or we may yet see the Mozilla Foundation vindicated if more and more services adopt Ogg Theora as their preferred format in the face of increasing H.264 royalties and growing numbers of users viewing video online.



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  1. Francois Botha avatar

    Check out the news on the VP8 video codec. It could be *the* codec to be used across all browsers in HTML5.

  2. What makes Google Chrome so fa avatar

    […] an emotional attachment to the browser that I don’t have for many other apps. Firefox has its limitations and, at the same time, great promise if Mozilla becomes more aggressive about mobile platforms. […]

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