Dear MSFT and AAPL, Embrace Theora!

I swear; I'm not a hypocrite. I 100% stand by what I wrote to Mozilla about supporting H.264 or risking killing video on the Web sans plugins. I also continue to believe that H.264 is a significantly superior codec to Theora (it's a fact so it's hard to deny). And I also continue to believe that publishers with huge libraries of H.264 encoded video don't want to go through the process of re-encoding all that video; not to mention the added expense of storing and distributing multiple formats. Mozilla, I say to you again: you need to support H.264 video (be it natively or through system libraries such as Quicktime or Gstreamer).  The Web needs H.264 to be universally available because the largest content producers need the highest quality codec to distribute their video to everyone; they need a codec with broad hardware support such that mobile devices don't run themselves dead in 5 minutes of video playback. For now, and for the foreseeable future, H.264 is that codec.

Perhaps the greatest misunderstanding of my previous article was that I was somehow saying that Mozilla should drop support for Theora. Despite the number of times I refuted this claim, it seemed to persist. For the record, I do not think Mozilla should drop support for Theora in Firefox; I think they should add support for H.264 .

The Pareto Principle, if you subscribe to it, tells us that 80% of video content is going to be generated by 20% of the market. That 20% simply won't settle for an inferior codec in the interest of that codec being free. For all of Mozilla's posturing and idealism, the only real outcome they can achieve is that some 80% of the most viewed online video content will continue to be delivered via Flash, Silverlight, or some other plugin. Of course, that leaves us with all the video content that other 80% of content producers generate; and that's where Theora comes in.

It's All About the Tail!

The Web has given everyone a voice (I certainly could never have written an article that was read by over 10,000 people in less than 24 hours without the Web). The Long Tail Phenomenon a truly wonderful and powerful force; independent content producers now have the ability to distribute their content to a huge audience. The aspiring filmmaker can post his video on the Web; the aspiring musician can post her music on the Web. Bloggers are treated more and more like first-class journalists every day. And the potential for exposure is certainly far beyond what could have been achieved independently even 10 years ago.

But members of the Long Tail have very different needs and expectations for their content than the major content providers. For starters, the aspiring filmmaker probably doesn't have the $10,000 per year royalties that could (theoretically) be due for his video encoded in H.264 and distributed on the Web. He also likely doesn't have a lawyer to help him understand the obscure patent laws that cover H.264 usage. And he certainly doesn't have the resources to fight the potential legal battle if he's found to (even accidentally) misuse his "rights" to H.264.

This niche is where free formats demonstrate their great value; and speaking for the likely thousands of these hopeful filmmakers out there, we need a format that we can be confident will always be free. We need a format that we are free to do whatever we want with. We need a format that enables everyone to create their content and share it with the world freed from any legal concerns. For now, and for the foreseeable future, Theora is that codec.

No, the quality's not nearly as good; but it'll work for the guy just trying to get his film out there (Conversely, it definitely won't work for FOX for putting HD episodes of 24 and House online). The point is, for people in the Long Tail, sometimes "good enough" really is good enough.

Microsoft and Apple Agree?

These guys are never on the same page so this must be big! Neither Microsoft or Apple are supporting Theora in their browsers. My thought is: Apple? Really? "Best friend" of the Indie Producer? A company that has built a reputation for providing fantastic support for creative professionals in both the audio and video industry should know better! As for Microsoft; well, nothing that company screws up surprises me, honestly.  There's simply no excuse for not supporting Theora (on the desktop; Mobile is a different matter altogether due to the aformentioned availability of hardware decoders for H.264). The code is out there; there are implementations for every major OS. There's nothing preventing either company from supporting it other than their own stubbornness; very much like Mozilla's own stubbornness regarding H.264.

It's About Producer Choice

This isn't about consumer choice; it's very clear that consumers just don't care. It's about choice for the content producers. It's about letting the guy who maxxed out 10 credit cards to scrape together a movie (and unlike Kevin Smith, got rejected by Sundance) get his film on the Web for the world to see knowing that he's not in danger of racking up even more debt.  It's about embracing the long tail; the Here Comes Everybody mentality.

The Web needs H.264. The major broadcast and cable TV networks and the other big names of content will never choose Theora (I reiterate, they'd rather deliver their video via Flash to take advantage of H.264 than use Theora). For HTML5 video to succeed Firefox must support H.264.

Microsoft and Apple, it's time for you two both to ensure that the independent content producers of the world get equal treatment in your browsers. I applaud you for accepting H.264 so that we could all get our favorite TV shows and movies online without plugins. Now I'm asking you to make sure we can also get content from smaller sources like The Guild and Red vs. Blue. For the Long Tail to continue to grow as a source of meaningful and influential content, we also need free video; and for that, we need Theora.