Wikimedia is considering support for H.264 video codec to boost video on Wikipedia

The Wikimedia Foundation has tried for years to bring more videos to Wikipedia. But despite those efforts, only 38,000 video files have been uploaded to Wikimedia Commons, which is essentially Wikipedia’s media library. That’s next to nothing, considering that the English-language version of Wikipedia has more than 4.4 million articles alone.

Now, Wikimedia is considering a drastic step to boost the number of videos on Wikipedia: It may abandon its open source principles and add support for the H.264 video codec, which is the de facto standard for video on the web, but commercially licensed by patent pool outlet MPEG LA.

Until now, Wikimedia has only allowed uploads of videos encoded in Ogg Theora or WebM, both of which are open and royalty-free. However, this could soon change. The Wikimedia foundation officially launched a “request for comment” (RFC) Wednesday, asking its community of contributors for input on the question whether it should allow H.264.

The RFC reads, in part:

“Video is used widely for educational purposes on the Internet. Online videos can be an effective learning tool, particularly for people who cannot read well. However, video is not widely used on Wikimedia projects. To date, only 38,000 video files have been uploaded to Wikimedia Commons — about 0.2% of the 19 million other media files in our repository (by contrast, YouTube now hosts over 6.5 million educational videos).”

The document notes that the two formats currently used come with a number of downsides. For one not every browser supports WebM and Ogg Theora. Users of Safari (S AAPL) and Internet Explorer (S MSFT) in particular are left in the cold. What’s worse, a larger number of mobile devices currently offers no support:

“Once created, these files cannot be viewed on over two-thirds of mobile devices using Wikimedia sites — and most videos recorded on mobile devices cannot be directly uploaded to our sites. This is particularly concerning because mobile use of Wikimedia sites is already large (33% of total pageviews last month) and growing rapidly.”

The Wikimedia foundation has traditionally had a very strict stance on open media formats. For example, Wikimedia doesn’t allow the upload of MP3 files because of patent and licensing issues. However, in light of the failure to bring video to Wikipedia, the foundation is apparently ready for a change of tune. A proposal under consideration would lead to every file automatically being transcoded, so that Wikipedia would be able to service up WebM version when supported, and fall back to MP4 for users visiting the site with devices or browsers that don’t support open formats.

However, there is also dissent. Again, from the RFC:

“MP4 opponents consider our free software goals and ideals to be as important as our educational mission, at least as far as video is concerned. They view MP4 support as a fundamental shift in our values — and a major setback for the open and free software movements. They are prepared to stick with the current status quo, even if this means that millions of users are unable to view or contribute MP4 video content on our sites.”

Wikimedia is not alone with its change of heart. In October, Mozilla announced that it was going to add support for H.264 to its Firefox browser through a collaboration with Cisco. (S CSCO) That announcement was closely tied to efforts to find a common video codec for the real-time communications standard WebRTC — but there also seems to be a growing consensus amongst open media format advocates that the WebM video format and its VP8 codec simply aren’t adopted widely enough to compete with H.264.

That’s why some are now pegging their hopes at future video codecs. Earlier this month, Google (S GOOG) announced that it has secured wide-ranging hardware support for its VP9 video codec, and Mozilla has already begun to work on a next-next-generation codec called Daala that is supposed to be ready to be implemented by the end of 2015.