Cisco to release open-source H.264 codec, Mozilla makes tactical retreat

Mozilla has yet to completely win or lose the war on video codecs, but has made a tactical retreat to preserve its forces, according to Ogg Vorbis creator Monty Montgomery.

Cisco and Mozilla have announced a plan that will enable the browser maker to distribute an H.264 codec, and in effect end a standoff over which video codec should be at the end of the W3C's WebRTC standard.

The problems for Mozilla stem from the fact that the H.264 codec is licensed by MPEG LA under terms that Mozilla is not willing to accept. The new arrangement will see Cisco pay the licence fee and distribute binary builds that can be used in Firefox.

"We plan to open source our H.264 codec, and to provide it as a binary module that can be downloaded for free from the internet," wrote Rowan Trollope senior vice president and general manager, Cisco Collaboration Technology Group, in a blog post.

"Cisco will not pass on our MPEG LA licensing costs for this module, and, based on the current licensing environment, this will effectively make H.264 free for use in WebRTC."

Mozilla CTO Brendan Eich welcomed the move, but admitted that it is not a complete solution.

"At Mozilla, we always come back to the question of what's good for the users, and in this case, that means interoperation of copious H.264 content across OSes and other browsers," wrote Eich.

"We've already started looking at how to integrate the Cisco-hosted H.264 binary module, and we hope to have something ready for users in early 2014."

Mozilla is working on a new codec called Daala, which it hopes will leapfrog its competition to be the best video codec, but one that is also free from patents and licencing.

Monty Montgomery, author of Ogg Vorbis and a recent Mozilla recruit charged with developing Daala, said that the deal with Cisco is not a win, though.

"Let's state the obvious with respect to VP8 vs H.264: We lost, and we're admitting defeat," said Montgomery in his response.

"Cisco is providing a path for orderly retreat that leaves supporters of an open web in a strong enough position to face the next battle, so we're taking it.

"By endorsing Cisco's plan, there's no getting around the fact that we've caved on our principles."

Montgomery said that it makes little sense for Mozilla to maintain its holdout against H.264 after its chief ally, Google, shipped recently with H.264 support. He said that the move by Cisco will see it cough up at least $6.5 million per year, due to the terms of the codec's licensing, which sets a yearly cap for licensing costs.

The Ogg Vorbis author said that the arrangement has short-term benefits, but solves nothing in the long term.

"H.264 is already considered 'on the way out' by MPEG, and today's announcement doesn't address any licensing issues surrounding the next generation of video codecs.

"We've merely kicked the can down the road and set a dangerous precedent for next time around. And there will be a next time around, " he said.

By Chris Duckett

Some would say that it is a long way from software engineering to journalism, others would correctly argue that it is a mere 10 metres according to the floor plan. During his first five years with CBS Interactive, Chris started his journalistic adven...