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Mozilla, the non-profit foundation behind the popular Firefox browser, is putting its weight behind the development of an open, royalty-free video codec for the internet.

While popular video formats such as MPEG4 are quite robust, most are proprietary, covered by patents and require some sort of licensing on the part of software vendors.

Mozilla wants the internet to have an open alternative and has chosen Theora, a glossy video format originally developed by a company called On2 as a proprietary codec, as the means to accomplish this.

To that end, it is donating $100,000 to the Wikimedia Foundation, which runs Wikipedia. The Wikimedia Foundation will administer the use of the funds to support the development of Theora and the Orbis audio codec that is being used alongside it.

In a blog post, Chris Blizzard, Mozilla's Director of Evangelism, explains the rationale behind Mozilla's move:

Although videos are available on the web via sites like youtube, they don’t share the same democratized characteristics that have made the web vibrant and distributed.  And it shows.  That centralization has created some interesting problems that have symptoms like censorship via abuse of the DMCA and an overly-concentrated audience on a few sites that have the resources and technology to host video.  I believe that problems like the ones we see with youtube are a symptom of the larger problem of the lack of decentralization and competition in video technology - very different than where the rest of the web is today.

He's right, but the question I have is simple: notwithstanding the philosophical debate between open and proprietary formats, does the world really need another video codec?

Despite the fact that they're proprietary formats, I have never experienced an issue using the MPEG and WMV codecs, for instance. I've never run into licensing issues, faced burdensome costs, etc.

So while I do recognize the appeal in having a completely open video codec, I'm not so sure Theora is going to woo content producers for that reason alone.

It will have to compete on quality, features and ubiquity if it wants to become a useful part of the online video ecosystem. Just like every other codec.

To that end, one interesting aspect of Theora is that it will eventually "let [video] interact with other types of content (SVG, Canvas, HTML) in ways that haven’t been possible to date." Mozilla's Blizzard states:

We hope that by releasing video from the plugin prison and letting it play nice with others we’ll be able to open up a new wave of creativity around video.

That could be interesting. But Theora has a long way to go before it becomes a real player in the video format space and as everyone acknowledges, that isn't likely to happen overnight.

Patricio Robles

Published 27 January, 2009 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

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