The New Browser Wars: Google, Apple, and Patents, Oh My!

Browser War

Earlier this week Mozilla announced plans for Firefox 4.  The free and open source browser maker has promised the new Firefox will be faster, more powerful, and empowering. They also intend to increase support for HTML5, which has become the subject of debate among supporters of just about every major browser.

It is perfectly normal for two software companies to have divergent agendas.  The problem that arises with web browsers is that their content is external.  As much as users are dependent on the browsers to access their content, browsers are dependent on web developers and web standards to display the content correctly.

In an ideal world, every portion of text, images, videos, and animations that a web site displays will function exactly as the developer intended in every browser. The reality, however, is much darker and has some believing that the browser wars of the 90s are once again on the verge of igniting. The major difference is that the 21st century war may not be about features, loading speed, and customer loyalty. It may come down to patents, licensing, and legal disputes.

There is no denying that Google, Microsoft, and Apple all have vested interest in the Web, and all three have tremendous influence over how the Web is constructed and how it evolves. To make matters even more complicated, all three have competing web browsers. Add Mozilla Firefox, which holds a substantial market share, Opera, which has influence over the mobile market, and Adobe, which currently enjoys a near monopoly on animated and video streaming Web content, and we have ourselves a good old-fashioned battle royal.

To understand how it came to this point, one needs to look back to 2004 when the Web Hypertext Application Technology Working Group (WHATWG) introduced the HTML5 draft specifications.  The founding members of WHATWG were Apple, Mozilla Foundation, and Opera Software, all whom desired to create better HTML standards.  By 2007, they had convinced the W3C to adopt HTML5 and continue its development.

Originally, the video specification in HTML5 called for Ogg Theora, an open video codec, to be used as the default video format for the Web. This served two purposes:

  1. To eliminate the need for multiple formats, plugins, and players (think back to Real Player and Windows Media or to the more recent Adobe Flash video).
  2. To remove any legal obstacles that existed in other video formats that are patented by organizations like MPEG-LA.

Unfortunately, Apple and Google did not agree with the decision. They considered H.264, a patented codec, to be superior to Ogg Theora, both in video quality and compression. Mozilla argued that even if H.264 were superior, its patents would preclude any inclusion in Firefox because it would be incompatible with free software licenses.

Both Apple and Google dislike the dependency that the Web currently has to Adobe. YouTube and numerous other video sites rely on Adobe’s Flash Player to stream video. Flash Player is proprietary and is, therefore, not included in any browser. Users who wish to use it must download a plugin.  Some users complain about Flash Player being too CPU-hungry and slow on older computers and mobile devices. Video served through HTML5, whether Theora or H.264, is faster, requires less buffering, and plays more like video actually saved on a user’s computer.

As a result of the disagreement, when the browser makers started releasing new versions of their browsers with preliminary HTML5 support, one (Apple Safari) supported H.264, two others (Mozilla Firefox and Opera) supported Ogg Theora, and one (Google Chrome) supported both.

Noticeably absent from the fray was Microsoft, which initially did not indicate that it had plans to support HTML5 video at all.  Earlier this year, however, Microsoft joined in the discussion and seemed to be on track to bring support to Internet Explorer. Their recent announcement of Internet Explorer 9 confirmed this, as they informed the world that IE9 would include some HTML5, but they would only support H.264 video and not Theora.

The danger now is that there may be no consensus. The HTML5 development team  has removed the Ogg Theora portion from the HTML5 specification, leaving it wide open for any video format. What could result is a codec dispute, which would really bring us back to where we started.

In terms of ethics and possibly even law, Mozilla is right to be weary of H.264. Although MPEG-LA currently has no plans to start suing people for using their video codec, the threat remains. For Web content developers to be expected to provide their visitors with video in a codec that might require them to pay a license fee, it could create a climate of inequality that goes against the open participatory culture of the Web.

Corporations are primarily concerned with the bottom line, and Google, Apple, and Microsoft are not exceptions, but the popularity of the Web depends on it remaining open. Returning to the days of subscription services like AOL and CompuServe would not make commercial sense for any of the parties involved. If web content creation is restricted to certain private institutions that are able to afford it, that is what could happen.

Despite the grim prospects, there is a glimmer of hope. Google, which has a history of supporting free and open source software, appears to be taking matters into their own hands. They recently acquired On2, the video codec developer that originally released the source code for the codec that would become Theora. The hope of many is that Google will use On2’s current video codec development to put an end to the dispute by producing a codec that outshines both H.264 and Ogg Theora. If Google were to release that new codec under a free software license, nearly all parties involved would be happy.

While the eventual outcome of this stalemate is unclear, the apparent reality is that there is a new browser war in the works, one that is more sophisticated and more diverse than it ever was in the days of Netscape vs. Internet Explorer. One can only hope that when the dust settles, the people who make the Web what it is, rather than the corporations, will be the winners.

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I am a librarian with 8 years of experience in information architecture, technology, free and open source software, and electronic publishing. I have written hundreds of articles on topics ranging from information technology to politics. I also write fiction novels, short stories, and fables.

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