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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?

Comments on "Linux Needs Open Multimedia on the Web"

jdas

Open standards, okay, but GOOG by \’doing good,\’ as you say, is doing evil by busting down a downtrodden company, ON2, that will give them the keys to the open source kingdom. VP8, a proprietary codec and the descendent of Theora, will be used by GOOG to effect this transition. GOOG is in the process of pulling this company out from under it\’s shareholders for virtually nothing, .20/sh, with the tax savings it gets. The first acquisition of a publicly held company, GOOG blundered thinking it would be easy. No shot. Two class action suits have been filed and shareholders are encouraging the SEC to look into GOOG\’s actions/affiliations with ON2 management prior to this announcement. It is our belief that GOOG controlled the company since last year, when it was announced that the COO would be \’acting CEO\’. For nine months, this acting CEO did nothing, and we believe it was because GOOG was in charge of the company, not the shareholder appointed BOD or its officers.

With VP8, GOOG will have the key to the kingdom. Endorsed by many Chinese companies who all will agree is the next 800 pound gorilla. Think GOOG won\’t make some serious money from its control of video over the internet AND mobile devices? Think again.

\’Do No Evil\’ my ass.

J

Reply
dford

I\’m still using 32 bit Linux – and probably will for some time yet. How many 64bit netbooks are there?

Reply
lamapper

Have to disagree with you JDAS, Google tries really hard to live up to their mantra, \”Don\’t be Evil\”. And if they bought the company, someone sold it. While I do not know the particulars, chances are they needed the cash or they would NOT have sold. Last time I looked, that is considered looking out for the shareholders.

The fact that they released theora into the public domain, into open source, states they are living their mantra and are NOT evil. We can expect the same thing with new technology, thank goodness.

Even if you find instances where they have protected their business model and suggest that, those acts make them evil, I would have to disagree with you. In response I would say they are MUCH LESS evil than all the others. So if you say they are evil, what are you saying about those companies (Microsoft and their ponies) that are more evil in comparison? So I say stop spreading FUD!

As for the lawsuits, they will play out in the courts and I know that Google will not be harmed by them. Of course that does not prevent people from attempting to tarnish the Google name in ridiculous attempts. Would not surprise me to find out that is why one or both of the lawsuits you alluded to were filed in the first place. If the SEC saw stock violations, it would have acted. As you stated those that filed the lawsuits are \”encouraging the SEC to look into\” it, good luck with that to them and you, more weak FUD.

Who are you a shill for? Microsoft, or one of the many companies that are led by Microsoft like a pony (to the gum factory) until the pony is put down by a new version of the operating system or a Microsoft application that completely obliterates that vertical application market (too many examples to list, the latest one is the Virus, Spam and Malware vertical that is getting destroyed by Microsoft including this in Windows 7, now that is evil.

Of course they have done this before and will do it again, where is your cry of evil there? I thought so.

Fedora identifies some of the ponies: http://bit.ly/iZZWt
Grokaw shows MIcrosoft\’s intent with moonlight http://bit.ly/CehqD

Thank you Google for making sure once more important piece (video and audio codecs) technologically can NOT be bought up by a truly \’evil\’ proprietary company and prevented from being used and/or included in either the kernel or Linux.

Now if you will do more to encourage use of open source codecs on Youtube instead of proprietary codecs (e.g. Adobe Flash) perhaps it will influence the majority of websites to use ONLY open source codecs. That is good for all.

After all even proprietary operating systems and software can read open source data formats. The reverse can not be said to be true, nor can it be guaranteed. (Silverlight 2, breaking open source Moonlight is the most recent example, just say NO to Moonlight, Mono and open source NET and avoid the hassles down the road).

Technologically, if VP8 is that much better than H.264, I am NOT saying that it is, thank goodness Google has it to release into open source as the other companies would NOT. And you KNOW this. How in the heck could that ever be evil. Heck they already made sure that theora was 100%, their actions speak louder than your words. They will do the same with any new technology, even if VP8 pans out to be better, IF.

You forget recent history where other companies unsuccessfully tried to buy up and lock down as proprietary the superior (even to this day) H.264 codecs. Thank goodness they were thwarted as that would have been the \”Keys to the Kingdom\” as you put it.

Take a look at the Fedora list of ponies whose software / drivers are proprietary and therefore are not included with Fedora, aim your righteous indignation and \”Keys to the Kingdom\” like comments to them. It would at least be logical.

And while you are at it, start attacking the proprietary BIOS companies that are also Microsoft and Intel ponies and have been for decades. The only open source BIOS is Coreboot, did you know that Coreboot currently supports hundreds of motherboards? (http://www.coreboot.org/Supported_Motherboards)

At least with Coreboot you could get a quad processor motherboard and let the 2 of the 4 processors do the work of the proprietary Nvidia GPU chips and it would be faster. (Nvidia typically waits 2 – 3 years before releasing their latest/greatest technologies – GPUs lately – catering to Microsoft and Intel specifically.) Linux users until recently had been limited to using the 6xxx series of Nvidia products. Some of the 8xxx are now being found on Linux desktops, however the 9xxx series and newer are NOT yet released.

Google evil, NOT! And if you use FUD to suggest that they are evil, what are you saying about the companies that truly are?

I say to you sir, FUD, Fud and more fud….

Reply
wweng_linux

From what jdas has said in his post, he has made one point clear:

Companies who try to make money is EVIL!!!

Reply
csmart

No doubt different people have different interpretations on what exactly \”evil\” is.

I asked the question though – is the opposite of \”do no evil\” actually \”do good\” or something else?

Just because Google acquires On2 doesn\’t mean that they will free the web with it. They might, as jdas suggests, make money from it instead by licensing it.

Google should acquire On2 for what they are worth, that\’s for sure. Perhaps the CEO knows something about the companies books that the shareholders don\’t..

Either way, whether evil or not, Google has the power to free the web and I hope that they do. YouTube streaming Theora would be so influential and could be the boost it needs.

-c

Reply
pinebud

Open standard for multimedia in web (or HTML) should be about the media or codec itself, not about the binary that execute the media. If the binary is considered as a standard, a OS or a company inevitably will control the market for web multimedia. Furthermore, inary excutable standard like Flash video makes it hard to use platform capabilities like HW accelerated codecs and multimedia framework already existing like DirectShow or GStreamer. I don\’t read the direction of the article exactly, but the standard should specify to embed multimedia clip itself without metadata for the player of executable, I think.

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