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Mobile moves Mozilla's hand on H.264

The prevalence of hardware H.264 decoding on mobile devices, and the need to compete on mobile, has forced Mozilla to finally change its view towards supporting the codec.

After years of sustained opposition to implementing support for the H.264 codec, Mozilla is poised to complete a 180-degree turn, thanks in part to Google's continued support for the codec and the abilities of hardware decoders found in mobile devices.

Brendan Eich, Mozilla CTO and JavaScript creator, cited the lack of widespread transcoding by content creators, Flash fallbacks for video playback, and the dominance of Apple's mobile devices as reasons for Mozilla's volte-face.

"Losing a battle is a bitter experience. I won't sugarcoat this pill. But we must swallow it if we are to succeed in our mobile initiatives. Failure on mobile is too likely to consign Mozilla to decline and irrelevance," Eich wrote in a blog post.

Mozilla has recently been working on its HTML-based Boot to Gecko (B2G) project to provide an alternative to iOS and Android, and, given the presence of H.264 decoding in mobile hardware, coupled with the lack of take up in hardware decoding of the alternate WebM codec, Mozilla sees that it needs H.264 decoding to remain relevant and to take the fight to Apple and Google.

"H.264 is absolutely required right now to compete on mobile. I do not believe that we can reject H.264 content in Firefox on Android or in B2G and survive the shift to mobile," wrote Eich.

"Google is, in my opinion, not going to ship mobile browsers this year or next that fail to play H.264 content that Apple plays perfectly. Whatever happens in the very long run, Mozilla can't wait for such an event. Don't ask Google why they bought On2 but failed to push WebM to the exclusion of H.264 on Android."

Mitchell Baker, chair of the Mozilla Foundation, conceded that Mozilla's approach to video on the web has not been the most user friendly, but said that it was necessary to try to attain greater goals.

"We've declined to adopt a technology that improves user experience in the hopes this will bring greater user sovereignty. Not many would try this strategy, but we did," wrote Baker.

"It's time to focus on shipping products people can love now, and to work on developing a new tactic for bringing unencumbered technology to the world of audio and video codecs."

The internet video wars will now move on to the WebRTC standard, where the defeated pairing of Mozilla and Opera will try to push Google's WebM codec.

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