Is Ogg Theora The Savior of Online Video?

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Ogg TheoraOgg Theora, the magical, mystical, savior of the online video movement? Tapped to be part of the Open Video Standards and set to take its position at center stage in the push for widespread online video acceptance, but is it all it can be and is it all that we need?For those unfamiliar, we’ll start at the beginning. Ogg Theora is an open and royalty-free video encoder. It’s a lossy video compression codec which uses chroma subsampling, block based motion compensation and an 8 by 8 DCT block. That’s all pretty technical. For those of us that aren’t so video tech savvy let’s leave it at it’s a free video compression codec that could become the main way to create your videos for online distribution.

Major problems still exist in the codec. It’s got all sorts of graphics and frame rate issues that make it inferior to many of the other available encoders. But it’s open source and free meaning that it could quickly develop with the right people involved and no one need pay a royalty to use it. That’s a great boon for the Open Source Video movement that is looking for a completely free solution for online video.

However, even with these flaws the codec was recommended for inline embedded video in HTML 5 via the <video> tag and multiple browsers have begun adaptation including beta version of Firefox 3.5, the Opera Video Build and Google Chrome as of version (even though the last two still prefer H.264).

Wait a second Chris…

I know, you’re going to tell me that the Ogg formats have been pulled from the HTML 5 specification and that they’re not the answer. Both Apple and Nokia have complained about the codecs stating that they are still patented and could create problems later (though I’m certain there are other reasons behind their public condemnation). But there are very few other possibilities as H.264 and MP4 are not free either. So it’s some murky water that we step into right now and going into all the details would require far more room than I’m allotted here on a daily basis. But I believe that OGG (Theora and Vorbis) could be the answer. Sure they are still within patent lifetimes but they are royalty-free. Yes that could be a problem later, but wouldn’t it be simpler just to get something signed and agreed on than trying to work with a codec that requires a royalty fee or starting from the ground up on a new codec?

I’m not 100% certain that Ogg is the saviour for online video. I know that it has a lot of advantages over some of the other potential codecs and while it’s not favored by Nokia and Apple it is supported by three major browsers without the need for a new plugin. That’s a big step forward. If Internet Explorer were to also take the plunge I think that the die would be cast and there would be no way back from the inevitable. Microsoft might just do it to spite their long time rivals in the Cupertino camp and that’s how wars are won sometimes.

Other Options…

There are numerous codecs available, however many of them are not freely available. Many of them contain proprietary technology and that means payment for use. Others have patents and other licensing agreements in place that make them less than ideal for universal usage. So really what are we left with? Here’s a quick list of the most popular video codecs now.

  • Ogg – Theora + Vorbis = BSD style license, no patented algorithms
  • H.264 = GNU GPL, H.264 patented
  • Xvid = GNU GPL, MPEG-4 algorithm used
  • FFmpeg = GNU LGPL, MPEG-1,2,4 algorithms used
  • DivX,WMV, RealVideo = Proprietary codecs = $$$

THE BSD Style license is, according to Wikipedia:

The typical BSD license contains 3 major clauses, allowing unlimited redistribution for any purpose as long as its copyright notices and the license’s disclaimers of warranty are maintained. The license also contains a clause restricting use of the names of contributors for endorsement of a derived work without specific permission.

GNU GPL means that the software and derivative works are all available under the same permissive license. The GNU LGPL is an even easier license to follow and allows for more things to be done with the software and its derivatives. From wiki:

When someone distributes a GPL’d work plus their own modifications, the requirements for distributing the whole work cannot be any greater than the requirements that are in the GPL.

The LGPL is different in that:

The main difference between the GPL and the LGPL is that the latter can be linked to (in the case of a library, ‘used by’) a non-(L)GPLed program, and regardless of whether it is free software or proprietary software.

Slightly more permissive than the original means a slightly wider potential distribution.

Proprietary? Well I can’t tell you about that because it might endanger the NDA or let loose patented or copyrighted intellectual property. While I’m not opposed to this sort of thing, as everyone needs to protect their own works (like I would not want my articles here freely copied onto other sites without my permission or without some licensing payment) it simply does not work in a situation like this where we need a full on freely usable set of software so that it is readily and freely available to anyone who wants to use it.

Ring the bell, sing the praise, Ogg is the answer!

Is Ogg the answer to all our video compression woes? We just don’t really know at present. I would love to say yes. If someone from, who manages the Ogg project were to contact me and possibly take part in my theoretical conference on moving online video forward through solidarity, I would love to hear from them. Right now it’s lacking in capabilities and that means we need some further development time and effort. Since it’s open source I believe that the best of the best young video compression algorithm writers could step forward and become part of one of the greatest open source projects ever, bringing online video to everyone.

If Ogg Theora + Vorbis is not the answer to all of our prayers yet, I believe they could be one day. But like all things which are worth doing, it will be a lot of work. So let’s all get to it.


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