Is Steve Jobs at it again? Just days after reaffirming Apple's decision to ban Adobe's Flash from the iPhone, the company's CEO is reportedly pointing the finger at another multimedia technology he sees struggling with major shortcomings -- echoing similar comments, as it turns out, from Apple's longtime archrival, Microsoft.
Hugo Roy, the French coordinator of Free Software Foundation Europe, said he had sent Jobs an e-mail partly to applaud Apple's commitment to Web standards that Jobs had outlined in his Thoughts on Flash essay. But according to Roy, a prominent European open source advocate, Jobs responded specifically to another part of the e-mail, where Roy had suggested Apple should support open source video codec (coder/decoder) formats like Theora instead of H.264, which requires licensing fees.
Instead, Jobs suggests in his e-mailed response that the backers of these video codecs may have reason to worry.
"All video codecs are covered by patents," Jobs said in the e-mail, according to Roy. "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."
Jobs didn't say whether Apple is part of the "patent pool" and Apple didn't respond to a request for comment by press time. But the comments, if indeed from Jobs, have at least one open source advocate convinced Apple is at least in discussions with the "pool" of companies -- and that the results could negatively impact open access to videos on the Web.
"I personally don't want to conclude that Apple is part of this group, but if he's so affirmative about the existence of this patent pool and no one I know has heard of this till now that tells me Jobs is at least involved with what the group is doing," Florian Mueller, told InternetNews.com. Mueller is founder of the European NoSoftwarePatents campaign and author of the FOSS (Free and Open Source Software) Patents blog.
Microsoft says H.264-only for IE9
Apple's not the only one looking askance at alternatives to H.264. In a blog on Thursday, Microsoft came out squarely in favor of H.264 as part of its strategy for implementing the HTML5 Web specification in Internet Explorer 9.
"The HTML5 specification describes video support without specifying a particular video format. We think H.264 is an excellent format. In its HTML5 support, IE9 will support playback of H.264 video only," Dean Hachamovitch, general manager for Internet Explorer, wrote in a post on the Microsoft IE blog.
"H.264 is an industry standard, with broad and strong hardware support. Because of this standardization, you can easily take what you record on a typical consumer video camera, put it on the Web, and have it play in a Web browser on any operating system or device with H.264 support (e.g. a PC with Windows 7). Recently, we publicly showed IE9 playing H.264-encoded video from YouTube," Hachamovitch said.
Hachamovitch added that beyond technical considerations, H.264 was a better choice than open source alternatives because the intellectual property rights to H.264 are "broadly available through a well-defined program" managed by the MPEG LA.
"The rights to other codecs are often less clear, as has been described in the press," he said.
That's likely not the reception that open source advocates have been seeking in response to their efforts to promote Theora and similar technologies.
In his initial e-mail to Jobs, which Roy also posted on the Web, Roy had written urging Apple to distance itself from H.264 as other Web browser makers have done.
"May I remind you that H.264 is not an open standard? This video codec is covered by patents, and vendors and commercial users of products which make use of H.264/AVC are expected to pay patent licensing royalties for the patented technology," Roy wrote. "This is why Mozilla Firefox and Opera have not adopted this video codec for their HTML5 implementation, and decided to choose Theora as a sustainable and open alternative."
But other open source advocates pointed out that Apple and Microsoft are both already in the H.264 camp.
"The closed source world would prefer H.264, which Apple and Microsoft already support," Mueller said. "This is a big deal because my understanding is that Theora is the default for Firefox, Opera and Google's Chrome browser (while Chromium supports only Theora).
"If this forces major browser vendors to discontinue support for Theora, that could tilt things in favor of H.264 and that means a lot of content creators to YouTube and other sites would have to switch to H.264," he added.
Microsoft and Apple agree: Flash has problems
H.264 isn't the only area where Microsoft and Apple are finding common ground. Echoing comments made by Jobs in his criticism of Adobe Flash, Microsoft's Hachamovitch added his own criticism of the popular multimedia technology.
"Flash does have some issues, particularly around reliability, security, and performance," he wrote in his post.
But Hachamovitch also acknowledged that Flash is the most popular and easiest way for consumers to view video on the Web today and, unlike Apple, he said Microsoft plans to work with Adobe on addressing those issues. That's even as, like Apple, Microsoft said it continues to see HTML5 as the future of video delivery in the browser.
"We work closely with engineers at Adobe, sharing information about the issues we know of in ongoing technical discussions," he said. "Despite these issues, Flash remains an important part of delivering a good consumer experience on today's Web."
Several posters on the IE 9 blog voiced displeaure with Microsoft's decision.
"This is a very sad day for the open Web. Microsoft will support HTML5 (yay!) but only a patent-encumbered, proprietary codec (boo!) anyone apart from Apple, Microsoft, and Google won't be able to support (due to the prohibitive licensing cost and/or the non-free nature). So instead of Flash, we're now crippling the Web with another proprietary technology," user Thom Holwerda wrote in response.