Linux Needs Open Multimedia on the Web

The state of web multimedia on Linux is pitiful. Proprietary codecs, plug-ins and closed standards are helping to keep Linux a second rate citizen. What Linux needs is not another proprietary framework like Moonlight, but more open standards. Can Google help by making YouTube a Theora-fest?

How does the free software world mix with a world full of corporations and proprietary products?

The Battle

The Internet has grown in leaps and bounds and these days is an essential tool for everyone. Personal, business, it doesn’t matter. No longer does it only consist of simple static web pages and the odd plain text email here and there. It’s big business. Users are demanding more and technology is pushing the limits of what is possible. As bandwidth and “the cloud” increase so does the intensity, richness and complication of the medium.

For many years Internet Explorer was the dominant web browser, thanks to Microsoft bundling it with their operating systems. As a result, it became the de facto standard for viewing websites, most of which were specifically written to be rendered correctly on the browser. When other players fought back in the market, it was much harder for them because most websites were not standards compliant.

This is nothing new. The battle between open and proprietary standards has been raging for decades and will continue to do so for many more.

Fortunately, these days there is a shift back towards standards compliance. This is seen very clearly with the controversy behind Microsoft’s latest release of Internet Explorer. The company had built an Internet on their own corrupt standards and now faced an interesting problem – should they support open standards and run the risk of being unable to render sites which previously had always worked in Internet Explorer? Or should they continue to support such sites and fail to render the increasing number of perfectly valid sites?

Open standards are a good thing. They enable everyone to operate on an even basis and compete on the quality of their products. This is something central to the free software movement, that knowledge should be shared to the benefit of everyone. For far too long innovation in the information technology industry has been strangled by the infestation of proprietary systems. Companies are still trying to lock users into their own proprietary formats and standards however, so that they must continue to use their products. This has to change.

Don’t Lower Your Standards

The Internet is moving at a rapid pace. The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) “develops interoperable technologies (specifications, guidelines, software, and tools) to lead the Web to its full potential.” They are the organisation behind the specifications for the web, including HTML version 5.

Initially released to the public one and a half years ago, one original aspect of the new specification was to do away with all the various third party “plug-in” style multimedia frameworks such as Flash, Silverlight and JavaFX. This was to be achieved by building a new open framework directly using the Vorbis audio and Theora video codecs. These two (among others) are supported by the Xiph.Org Foundation, which is a “non-profit corporation dedicated to protecting the foundations of Internet multimedia from control by private interests.” Their purpose is to “support and develop free, open protocols and software to serve the public, developer and business markets.”

Unfortunately, the idea of a patent and royalty free multimedia framework was rejected by a few companies with vested interests in the market. As a result, HTML 5 no longer specifies formats although it still supports the video element.

The push for standards is important. It’s what the Internet is supposed to be built on and it’s what will drive innovation in the future. The W3C is aiming to increase interoperability with HTML 5 and create a more level playing field. If they succeed, the Internet will be a happier place.

In This Corner…

Even though the idea was initially defeated, what the proposal has done is to open the door to the possibility of open multimedia on the web. At present however, the situation remains much the same.

The current “king” of the web is Adobe’s Flash. It’s hard to come across a website these days that doesn’t incorporate Flash to some degree. Many corporate sites, particularly those advertising products, often use it to showcase their products.

YouTube, arguably the single most popular multimedia website on the Internet, uses Flash with a range of codecs for its video content. Currently, the 720P high definition videos are using the h.264 codec with AAC for audio. This presents a problem not only for Google, but also for users of Linux because h.264 is heavily patented. Google will have to pay royalties to make use of the codec, as indeed will any free software encoder or decoder implementation if distributed in a country which upholds software patents.

Even though Flash has a strong place in the market, it hasn’t stopped others from trying to slice off a piece of the pie. Microsoft, one of the greatest vendor lock-in companies of all time, has been busy creating a multimedia framework of its own called Silverlight.

Silverlight is written on the .NET framework and introduced yet another platform for multimedia on the web. What are Microsoft’s motivations for doing so? Obviously the more of the Internet that is using their technology, the better it is for them (and the worse it is for everyone else). The web is moving beyond reliance on “Internet Explorer” and no doubt Microsoft is trying something else to lock users in.

It’s the new battle for the web of tomorrow. Each company has a vested interest in becoming the major player in the market, but do we need yet another proprietary platform for multimedia on the web? No. What we need is an open platform to increase innovation and interoperability.

The Poor Old Linux Desktop

The situation on the Linux desktop is particularly horrible. Thanks to the lack of a free and open framework for multimedia, users need closed source applications and patent encumbered codecs to view content on the web. This is outrageous! Imagine if sending an email required a proprietary application which had to be compatible with the recipient’s system? What if to view a plain HTML website one had to pay royalties? Imagine further that these were controlled by a single company. If such a world had existed in the past, then the Internet would not have become the useful medium that it is today. We must make sure this doesn’t happen in the future.

Open multimedia needs to come to the Internet and when it does Linux will be a much more attractive platform. In the mean time however, we’re still stuck trying to make things work.

Although there are some open source applications which can render Flash content, the majority of websites such as YouTube work better with the closed source Flash player from Adobe. Due to the small market share Linux has on the desktop, a stable plug-in is not a high priority for the company. These days, distributions such as Ubuntu can handle the installation of the existing plug-in quite easily, but there is still no stable 64bit version, which is completely unacceptable in the 21st Century.

Of course the other major issue is that Adobe Flash is closed source which introduces a range of problems for the Linux desktop. The major risk factor is security vulnerabilities. Free software authors cannot modify the source to fix holes and so users are at the mercy of the vendor to create and release updates. For a Linux box, this is just completely unnatural.

Then we have Microsoft who wants everyone to use Silverlight instead of Flash (or any other framework). To help Microsoft achieve this Novell has created Moonlight, an open source implementation of Silverlight. In order to run under Linux it is built on Mono, their open source implementation of the .NET framework. Recently, Novell released version 2.0 beta of Moonlight which should be compatible with version 2.0 of Silverlight (which is already at version 3.0).

There are many issues surrounding Moonlight including the .NET framework itself, patents and codec licensing, etc. As such, it is completely forbidden in Fedora. Other distributions such as Ubuntu are embracing it however, planning to deal with issues down the road.

The use of Moonlight requires a license for the codecs from Microsoft. These are only licensed to Novell via a covenant between the two corporations. It is important to note that the covenant does not cover any other distribution or company such as Red Hat, or even the public. Even though Silverlight 3.0 now has the ability to use codecs other than those from Microsoft (such as Vorbis and Theora), how many sites would actually switch from the default patent encumbered formats?

Overall, the situation isn’t great. Flash works well under 32bit Linux but only when using closed source, bug ridden proprietary software. If you’re using 64bit Linux (and who isn’t these days?) the situation is even worse.

Then there’s Silverlight, which is Microsoft’s attempt to garner some much needed control of the web. One has to wonder why Novell is helping Microsoft spread yet another proprietary framework when they could be helping free the web, but then it’s nothing unusual from Novell. Very few websites are actually using Silverlight and for the most part, Moonlight is completely useless.

The Knight in Shining Armour?

Google has considered migrating YouTube to make use of the Theora codec (even though it didn’t make the HTML 5 spec), but this has currently been rejected citing performance issues. Recently however, Google announced their acquisition of On2 Technologies, the company who created the Theora codec (and released an irrevocable patent license to the public). It is very interesting as it would give them the ability to improve Theora and incorporate newer elements.

Could it point to a move to adopt Theora for YouTube? Will Google use their position of power and influence to pioneer open multimedia standards on the web? Is “do good” is the opposite of “do no evil?” All these questions are yet to be answered, however perhaps Sundar Pichai, the Google Vice President of Product Management provides some insight: “Today video is an essential part of the web experience, and we believe high-quality video compression technology should be a part of the web platform. We are committed to innovation in video quality on the web, and we believe that On2′s team and technology will help us further that goal.” Here’s hoping.

Keep On Dreaming

Like many other standards on the web, multimedia should be open. It should work on any browser, on any platform and not rely on plug-ins or any third party software. Imagine a world where websites such as YouTube used royalty free codecs with open technology to deliver media content. Imagine that this worked with any standards compliant browser, on any platform. Such a place would bring Linux up to par with other operating systems and would do away with the need for third party proprietary applications which are holding Linux back.

Things are changing, with both Mozilla Firefox and Google Chrome browsers supporting Theora out of the box. Perhaps with support from these two big players the move towards a more open web is inevitable. Hopefully this is the case, but time will tell. What is certain is that the continued use of proprietary codecs and software is keeping Linux a second class citizen on the Internet and this needs to change.

Should Moonlight be embraced by the free software community? Or should we be united in pushing for an open multimedia platform with open standards, free software and royalty free codecs?

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