Microsoft Throws Its Weight Behind HTML5 and H.264

Microsoft has taken a big step toward standards-based web video by announcing support for HTML5 and the H.264 encoding format in Internet Explorer 9, the next version of its web browser. At its MIX10 developers conference, Microsoft became the latest company to throw its weight behind H.264-based HTML video playback, following YouTube and Vimeo.

Using HTML5, publishers will be able to serve video directly into certain modern browsers without an external plugin like Adobe Flash or Microsoft Silverlight. Up until recently, however, most browsers didn’t support H.264 as the default encoding format. Today, users can access HTML5 video encoded in H.264 with Chrome, Safari or Internet Explorer with Google’s ChromeFrame installed. That means that only about 25 percent of users can actually watch HTML5 video encoded in H.264, according to Vimeo. But adding H.264 support to the latest version of Internet Explorer could boost the number of people that will be able to view video in browser without requiring a plugin.

Although Internet Explorer has been losing share for years, it still holds a sizable portion of the browser market — more than 60 percent in February, according to NetMarketShare. Launched about a year ago, Internet Explorer 8 has roughly 22 percent market share, while IE6 still holds a surprising 20 percent, despite being nearly 10 years old. But that could end soon, as multiple sites, including YouTube, are ending support for that version.

While H.264 is slowly becoming the default encoding format for video on the web, it isn’t yet supported by Firefox and Opera. Despite the fact that H.264 licensing body MPEG LA announced that it will extend its royalty-free license of the video codec for an additional five years, Firefox creator Mozilla continues to shy away from supporting H.264. Instead, Mozilla has decided to support video through the Ogg Vorbis encoding format, which is open source and therefore isn’t encumbered by licenses.

While Microsoft’s support of HTML5 and H.264 could potentially give in-browser video viewing a big boost, there are a number of issues that need to be resolved before the standard goes mainstream. In addition to lack of universal browser support, HTML5 also lacks support for advertising, the majority of which is built in Flash.

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