H.264 support arrives in Firefox, thanks to Cisco — but H.264 web videos still won’t play

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Hell has frozen over, as Mozilla officially added support for the proriertary H.264 video codec to its open source Firefox browser Tuesday. The implementation of H.264 is done with help from Cisco, which is providing Firefox users with a binary component that can be downloaded once the newest version, 33, of Firefox is installed on a user’s system. However, H.264 videos still won’t play natively in Firefox — the new component is only being used for WebRTC-based video chat.

Cisco and Firefox first announced their collaboration on H.264 a year ago in an attempt to solve a stalemate around the future of browser-based video. The problem: Everyone in the industry is agreeing that the future of voice and video communication is based on WebRTC, an emerging standard that will allow browser and app makers to offer native video chat without the need for any third-party plugins.

However, browser and teleconferencing vendors are split on which video format to use for next-generation video chat services. Google has been pushing the industry to adopt VP8, the video format it open sourced back in 2010. Cisco and others instead have been favoring H.264, which is supported by legacy video conferencing hardware, but could require companies to pay licensing fees, and is covered by a number of patents — usually a big no-no for open source projects.

Mozilla has traditionally been in the open source and open codec camp, but changed course last year. Mozilla’s Chief Technology Officer Andreas Gaal explained the change of heart it this way in a blog post Tuesday:

Mozilla has always been an advocate for an open Web without proprietary controls and technologies. Unfortunately, no royalty-free codec has managed to get enough adoption to become a serious competitor to H.264. Mozilla continues to support the VP8 video format, but we feel that VP8 has failed to gain sufficient adoption to replace H.264. Firefox users are best served if we offer a video codec in WebRTC that maximises interoperability, and since much existing telecommunication infrastructure uses H.264 we think this step makes sense.

Gaal also noted that Mozilla is continuing to support open codecs, and is in fact developing a next generation video codec right now.

However, Mozilla’s embrace of H.264 comes with an important caveat. The binary component provided by Cisco doesn’t actually support all flavors of H.264, if you will, but only a more basic set of features used for real-time video applications (for media codec enthusiasts: it’s only capable of decoding streams encoded with H.264’s constrained baseline profile). This means that HD video streams encoded in H.264 still won’t play natively in Firefox. Said Gaal: “We will reconsider this once support (for high-profile H.264 streams) has been added.”

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