Applesoft, Ogg, and the future of web video

Will the real open codec please stand up?


Two years ago, cosmonaut and Ubuntu founder Mark Shuttleworth challenged open sourcers to turn the Linux desktop into a piece of art.

They should "out Apple" Apple, he said. They should fashion beautiful software and online services that reach a wider audience of consumer users.

Shuttleworth's Canonical has now launched Ubuntu 10.04, which goes a long way towards that Mactastic vision, offering new tools for music and video and all sorts of online services, all swaddled in a cool (and purple) UI.

The biggest change is a first not just for Ubuntu but for all Linux distros: an online music store akin to iTunes, the Apple app that revolutionized over-the-air music services. Called Ubuntu One, this new service is integrated with Rhythmbox, Ubuntu's default system for playing and ripping songs.

But there's a catch - and it's a catch that won't please open source purists. Ubuntu One serves up tunes via MP3 - the ubiquitous but proprietary and patented format for coding and decoding music - and it won't use Ogg Vorbis, the patent-free open-source alternative from Xiph.org that's offered under the GPL and a BSD-like license.

What's more, Canonical - Ubuntu's commercial sponsor - is now the only Linux maker to license H.264/AVC, the closed and patented technology used to compress video. Yes, there's an alternative to H.264. Yes, it's open source. And yes, it's free. It's called Ogg Theora, and it too is from Xiph.org.

Canonical's MP3 choice doesn't conform with pure open source ideology, but it's likely dictated by the sheer volume of music that already encoded with MP3. But the licensing of H.264 comes at the point in the web's evolution when netizens are crusading to prevent H.264 from becoming to video what MP3 is to music: a de-facto standard that must be licensed from patent holders.

The fate of this crusade could decide the future of the open web.

“It's probably not going to go over that well with the community because we all live under the threat of software patents”


 - SFLC counsel Aaron Williamson

Just as HTML5 is being touted as the way to build free and open web video, many of the big names doing the touting are also threatening to destroy that freedom. They're building video into browsers and applications using the closed and proprietary H.264.

The Software Freedom Law Center - the legal group that represents open source against patent holders and a famous defender of the GPL - told The Reg that the use of licensed and patented technologies like MP3 and H.264 by companies like Canonical could create bad feeling in the open-source community.

SFLC counsel Aaron Williamson said that while it might make sense for a commercial operation to license patented codecs in case it was prosecuted, "Linux distos - or other free software projects - shouldn't take licenses like that. It's probably not going to go over that well with the community because we all live under the threat of software patents."

Show me the money

While it's tempting to paint this as an academic debate - open source versus closed source - it's really about money. It's about profit and margins.

Chris "Monty" Montgomery - director of the Xiph.org Foundation, which sits behind Ogg Vorbis and Ogg Theora for music and video - said that the reason people should get behind open source is not philosophical. It's financial.

Hardware and software makers and internet service providers pay expensive fees to use MP3 or H.264. And those charging the fees - Thompson on MP3 and MPEG LA on H.264 - can always increase them. Some outfits opt for open source simply to avoid these fees. "The people...standing behind Ogg are doing it for a profit motive," Montgomery said bluntly.

One of those is Opera Software, whose latest browser - Opera 10.50 - gives you HTML5 video via the Ogg Theora video codec. Opera's chief technology officer Hakon Wium Lie supports open standards like Ogg because they mean companies don't have to pay a license that damages profits and margins. Opera is not an open-source browser. Ogg just makes business sense.

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