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The Codec Conundrum. UPDATE!

The computer world as we know it is going through some massive changes, the most notable one is this massive shift from traditional localized computing to cloud computing. As you can imagine this big of a change produces many problems, people want to try to direct the changes to better suite their groups needs and beliefs, industry giants are in a frenzy trying to deal with said changes and the general computer using populace is completely oblivious to the dramas happening behind their monitors. One of these dramas is what I call the Codec Conundrum.

For those of you who don’t know a codec is basically an instruction manual for a computer, specifically the operating system, that lets it know how to decode a compressed file such as mp3’s or avi’s. The conundrum I speak of involves the upcoming HTML5 specification. Html5 has new tags that allow a web page to access lower level of the underlying computer’s software and hardware, much like normal apps can. One of the most talked about tags is the html5 video tag, which basically allows a web page to render video with out a need for plug-ins like flash, quick-time. The issue comes up with which codec should developers support in their web pages. On desktop class systems it is possible to install any codec you want on it so theoretically it really shouldn’t matter, however, it matters a great deal.

Most desktop users don’t really install many apps on their computers let alone codecs, most users simply buy a computer with codecs already installed, courtesy of either the OS producer (Microsoft or Apple) or the hardware manufacturer (Dell, HP, Etc). It is important to note at this point the they don’t include all codecs, just the most popular/common ones such as mp3 and h.264 while open-source codecs like ogg are left out. So here we see it is important for a standard codec to be chosen so people don’t have to bother installing new ones. This is just a minor problem you say, and you’d be correct as far as desktops are concerned, it is easy enough for a web site to put a link to a codec download, they do it all the time for required plug-ins and add-ons. But the issue comes in that we are rapidly moving towards a more mobile computing para-gram, people are surfing the web from devices like iPhones and Droids which lack the raw cpu power needed for video decoding. Thus such devices usually have hardware decoders built-in to their mother board to assist the operating system, and as you can imagine, you can’t simply add new ones. So now we can see why it is so very necessary for the industry to agree on a standard codec, which it has, h.264 more commonly known as Mpeg4.

The issue is that many people (read: very loud minority) says that every one should use open-source codecs to keep the web from being dependant or controlled by any one. While they do have a valid point, it is also an ideal one and we don’t live in an ideal world. The industry doesn’t really care what codec they use, they just want to distribute their content to as many people as possible with the lest amount of problems. The problem with using open codecs, is that not many computers use it. It’s not installed on desktop OS’s other than Linux-based ones, and even though both Firefox and chrome browsers have support for this codec built-in, the most popular (read: default) browser, Internet Explorer, does not. And remember the issue with mobile devices, they don’t use software decoders and a vast majority of devices don’t have hardware decoders built-in to them. So open codecs just aren’t feasible because of the amount of work it would require to get it adopted. But the final point that I want to make is that using proprietary codecs or plug-ins doesn’t keep us from having an open web. I say this because the codec system and more importantly the media we want to view is not part of the web, it’s just distributed via the web. Just like gold bars being transported by armor truck are not part of the truck, the gold bars don’t adhere to the design principles of the truck. And from the end-user perspective their really is no reason to use an open codec over a proprietary one, they just want to have their video play without any problems on any device they want, which is what h.264 delivers. I know not everyone agrees with me and that’s OK, I do invite civilized debate and opinions of others.

Joshua Powers

UPDATE:

In recent news it turns out that the MPEGLA (owners of the H.264 codec) has announced that the codec would be free to end users forever (as long as said user isn’t making any money for encoding said videos is said codec). This should put to rest all the fears the open-source community had ever H.264, the keyword being “should”, knowing the open-source world they may still have issue with it not being open source from an idealogical perspective.

And while I’m here I would like to apologize for my absence from the blogging world, I was having issues with work and internet connections in my old apartment building, but I have those sorted out now and I’ll try to post more often, which maybe a chalenge for me as I’m the poster child for ADHD 😉

See Ya’ll later.

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