Microsoft on VP8 for HTML5: Never Say Never

Microsoft’s IE blog has published a follow-up to Friday’s post about Internet Explorer exclusively supporting H.264 for HTML5 video, answering many questions raised by commenters and debunking some misconceptions. Here’s the gist: Microsoft will continue to support Flash (s ADBE), as well as Silverlight, for video playback.

The company ruled out supporting open-source codecs like Ogg Theora for the time being, but Internet Explorer General Manager Dean Hachamovitch left open the possibility that it will change this position, saying that Microsoft “(will) be open to considering other codecs” once there is enough industry support for an H.264 alternative and any related legal uncertainties have been resolved.

That’s a clear message to Google (s GOOG), which will open-source its VP8 video codec later this month, as well as Apple (s AAPL), which has been publicly throwing its support behind H.264 in recent days while at the same time threatening Ogg Theora and VP8 with lawsuits. Essentially, Microsoft is saying: You guys duke this one out, and we’ll go with the winner.

Hachamovitch’s post spends a lot of time clarifying the company’s position regarding H.264 licensing. Some commenters had suggested that Microsoft has a vital interest in supporting H.264 because it’s part of the MPEG LA’s licensing pool, but according to Hachamovitch, Redmond is paying twice as much in fees as it’s receiving in royalties, largely due to the fact that it has to license H.264 for playback in Windows. He also said that Microsoft will encourage MPEG LA to extend its royalty-free license for H.264 web video playback beyond 2016.

As for open source alternatives, he said that Microsoft remains wary about so-called submarine patents, which could force companies to pay licensing fees or even be targeted by lawsuits despite adopting supposedly patent-free technology. One example mentioned is a 2005 lawsuit aimed at Micosoft’s use of the JPEG file format. A fact that Hachamovitch isn’t mentioning is that the patent the lawsuit was based on was eventually found invalid.

Microsoft announced its support for H.264 and HTML5 web video at its Mix10 developers conference in Las Vegas in March. Google is going open source its VP8 video codec at its Google I/O developer conference later this month, and it’s expected that the codec will be supported by both Firefox and Chrome.

Apple’s Steve Jobs wrote in an email last week that “(a) patent pool is being assembled to go after Theora and other ‘open source’ codecs” — a clear warning shot against Google, and apparently enough reason for Microsoft to stay on the sidelines for the time being.

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