Mozilla may support H.264 video codec in Firefox to compete on mobile phones

Mozilla had avoided the video codec until now because it is heavily encumbered by patents

Mozilla Foundation is considering adding support for the H.264 video codec in mobile versions of the Firefox browser, a move it has avoided up to now because H.264 is encumbered by patents. Mozilla's policy up to now has been to support only open codecs, but it is relaxing that rule because support for the codec is important in mobile browsers, the foundation's chair said.

"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," Mitchell Baker wrote in a blog post on Sunday.

Mozilla has so far relied on Adobe's Flash to implement H.264 for Firefox users, but that may not be an option for the Android version of Firefox, as Adobe has announced that it will not develop Flash on mobile devices, Mozilla CTO Brendan Eich wrote in a separate post.

H.264 is absolutely required right now to compete on mobile, Eich said. "I do not believe that we can reject H.264 content in Firefox on Android or in B2G and survive the shift to mobile," he said. Boot to Gecko (B2G) is Mozilla's platform for mobile devices.

The foundation had been counting on Google to push WebM, based on the VP8 video compression format, to the exclusion of H.264 on Chrome for Android, as part of its focus on open codec technologies, Eich said. But that is unlikely to happen as Apple ships hardware with support for H.264, he added.

WebM is an open, royalty-free, media file format designed for the web. The project was launched in 2010 to use the VP8 open video compression format as the video format for HTML5. VP8 was released under a royalty-free license after Google acquired its developer, On2 Technologies.

"Apple sells a lot of H.264-supporting hardware. That hardware in general, and specifically in video playback quality, is the gold standard," Eich said. Google is in his opinion not going to ship mobile browsers this year or next that do not play H.264 content that Apple plays perfectly, he added.

Andreas Gal, director of research at Mozilla, has proposed using operating system and hardware-based H.264 decoding capabilities on Android and B2G.

"We have never rejected encumbered formats handled by plugins, and OS-dependent H.264 decoding is not different in kind from Flash-dependent H.264 decoding in my view," Eich said. But he concluded with, "Losing a battle is a bitter experience. I won't sugar-coat this pill".

Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

John Ribeiro covers outsourcing and general technology breaking news from India for The IDG News Service. Follow John on Twitter at @Johnribeiro. John's e-mail address is john_ribeiro@idg.com

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