Steve Jobs is very serious about HTML5 being the future of the web, and in Jobs’ view, H. 264 is an integral part of that formula. Google and Microsoft agree: they’ve committed to MPEG LA’s video codec as the new standard for online video. That puts the three biggest players all in the same corner when it comes to H. 264.
But Opera and Firefox aren’t fans of the standard. Instead, they back a codec called Ogg Theora, which is royalty free and open source, while H. 264 is closed source and only royalty free until 2015. Their fear is that mass adoption of H. 264 will cause MPEG LA to “flip the switch” on royalties five years down the line, leaving companies no choice but to pay exorbitant licensing fees.
So why isn’t Apple on board with Ogg Theora? Apple fan Hugo Roy wrote Steve Jobs over the weekend, asking him about Apple’s backing of the H. 264 standard. Jobs informative and surprisingly length reply follows:
All video codecs are covered by patents. A patent pool is being assembled to go after Theora and other “open source” codecs now. Unfortunately, just because something is open source, it doesn’t mean or guarantee that it doesn’t infringe on others patents. An open standard is different from being royalty free or open source.
In short, Jobs thinks Ogg Theora violates patents, which makes it an unsafe investment for the company. Although MPEG-LA could theoretically flip the royalty switch on H.264 in 2016, the codec is, at least, well protected by a pool of well identified patents with clear owners. Apple would rather pay royalties five years down the line then bet on a standard that could disappear in a whirlwind of patent infringement lawsuits a few years down the line.
It’s the best explanation I’ve heard yet about why Apple’s supporting H.264 over a codec that is truly free.