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The conflict between video on the web and open standards

by Richard Hillesley

Few web video standards are truly open or free, and the major players have no interest in pushing them, says Richard Hillesley…

Yesterday I went to the UK Parliament TV site to tune into a speech by an MP, and failed because “Silverlight does not appear to be correctly installed on this computer.” At the bottom of a sequence of instructions, it said, “Linux users: please see the help pages for installer”, and I was led, via another page, to an installation page for Novell Moonlight.

Moonlight is a partial re-implementation of Silverlight which is intended by Microsoft to replace Flash as the ‘de facto standard’ for online advertising and video. Moonlight was developed under licence from Microsoft by a group of Mono developers who worked for Novell, but is not implemented on Firefox and is excluded by some Linux distros.

Fedora’s engineering manager, Tom ‘spot’ Callaway, noted that Microsoft’s Covenant to End Users of Moonlight is “specifically worded to apply only to end-users, and makes the following noteworthy distinction: ‘an entity or individual cannot qualify both as an End User and a Distributor for use of the same copy of a Moonlight Implementation.’ It grants no patent rights to Distributors… once you distribute, you stop being considered an ‘End User’ by Microsoft, and are no longer protected by this ‘covenant’ (unless you’re Novell or Microsoft).”

The covenant also reserves the right for Microsoft to discontinue the agreement at any time, and forbids use of “GPLv3 or a similar licence”. Callaway gives a clear enunciation of the problem. “If Microsoft was serious about encouraging adoption of the Silverlight/Moonlight technology in FOSS,” he wrote, “they would do so with an unrestricted patent grant for all end-users and distributors for code under any FOSS licence.”

Moonlight gives credibility to Microsoft’s claim that Silverlight is multi-platform, accessible to free software developers and a “part of the open web.” But when Miguel de Icaza indicated that he wanted Microsoft to contribute technology to ECMA he drew the evasive response from Bob Muglia of Microsoft that the firm was “trying to balance standards with its ability to rapidly innovate the Silverlight platform” – or, as it is expressed elsewhere, to strike “a balance between standards and the real world,” which in effect, is a declaration that Silverlight will not conform to open standards.

Few of the options for watching video on the web are truly open or free, and those that are free are not pushed by the major players.

Conversely, the developers of Firefox, take the position that they can’t and won’t support the H.264 format, because, although H.264 has some technical advantages, and has been ‘recognised’ as an ‘industry standard’ format for implementations of HTML5, the codec is patent and royalty encumbered, which inhibits its use with free and open source software. H.264 is not an open standard but an industry-led compromise developed by the ISO/IEC Moving Picture Experts Group (MPEG). In the view of proponents of the open web, a patent-encumbered codec works against the interests of startups, web designers, developers and users, and is a barrier to entry for free and open source software developers. The last of the US patents on H.264 does not expire until 2028.

Formats which are not knowingly patent encumbered and are released under open source licences include Ogg Theora and Dirac.

Most Linux users have made an unhappy compromise with Flash, which is ubiquitous but proprietary, and has performance issues on Linux. Meanwhile, Microsoft is using its desktop and browser monopolies to push for its own proprietary methodologies and codecs through Silverlight. Neither Apple nor Microsoft has any great interest in pushing for an unencumbered format, so we have reached an impasse. Except that Google has dropped support for H.264 in Google Chrome and is trying to focus support on its own WebM format, which is the one format supported by a major commercial enterprise that is patent and royalty free.

By definition, a standard assumes a level of commonality that enables multiple implementations which are totally conversant with one another. The basic requirement of a standard is that it preserves the integrity and neutrality of the data. In the view of Tim Berners-Lee: “The lesson from the proliferation of new applications and services on top of the web infrastructure is that innovation will happen provided it has a platform of open technical standards, a flexible, scalable architecture, and access to these standards on royalty-free ($0 fee patent licences) terms.”

I never did hear that speech in Parliament. The irony of this story, of course, is that the UK Government has said it is committed to open standards.

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    • AC

      Software patents are proof that some governments are too corrupt and incompetent to be allowed to make decisions.

    • lovinglinux

      Some important info missing. Google announced they would drop support for h.264 about a year ago, but they didn’t. Chrome still supports h.264. Mozilla has recently announced they will support h.264 on mobile and probably on desktop as well. Adobe is no longer supporting Flash on Linux. They made a deal with Google, which will be implementing PepperFlash on Chrome using their own PPAPI, that nobody else wants. Adobe will only provide security updates for the NPAPI plugin, for 5 years. The plugin as it is right now is already causing headaches to Linux users, because of hardware acceleration bugs that won’t be fixed.

    • Jean-Marc Liotier

      What is the source for the “a balance between standards and the real world” quote ? It sounds awful and I would like to give it exposure, but that requires attribution…

    • Source Steven Sinofsky, president of Microsoft’s Windows and Windows Live division, claimed the company had learned a “great deal about interoperability” on IE 8, and three weeks into IE 9, he said the new browser is already more compliant with ACID 3 than IE 8.

      But he noted it’s important to have a “balance between standards and the real world.” He said there’s a “of things” Microsoft wants to do but also that “it’s important to balance the base line with innovative technologies.”

    • ned flanders

      Isnt Silverlight dead?
      Didnt MS pull the plug on it a few months ago and left it hanging on to do something on mobile (because we all know how rosy the smartphone department is doing at MS)?
      They were going to concentrate on HTML5 (as is Adobe) so if Silverlight is no longer Microsoft’s cross-platform runtime solution, why bother?
      To show how out of touch your web company is?
      Microsoft is positioning Silverlight as a tool for creating rich media and smartphone apps.
      THATS the way they are going.
      The fact that the BBC or UK govt does this has probably also to do with who they hire at certain levels than a total lack of knowledge.

      In 2012, its embarassing to be that obtuse.

      And can we just stab Mono in the heart like a vampire and kill it off finally?

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    • Gordon

      Not many of the developers want to allow Open Source as can be seen when upgrading, especially printers.
      This will also allow more TOXIC attacks on software such as ACTA (Anti-Couterfeiting Trade Agreement) which may be passed in the EU in June !.

      Not having seen anything in mag I thought that we should all be aware that our Gov and EU are voting in June to implement or not the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA).
      This item will affect all software and internet users !.
      It could make many of us and our children CRIMINALS !.
      I urge all readers to contact their MEP’s to say NO to ACTA !.
      More info at

      Another concerned user, especially as my RaspberryPi is late.