Murphy's Law: Apple Opens Up to Closed Standards


I'm not sure which of these is a more compelling criticism of the Apple iPad: "They named it what?" or "Where's the Flash?"

It's no secret that Apple harbors no love for Adobe's Flash architecture. John Gruber over at Daring Fireball recently wrote up a wonderful treatise as to why this is the case. If you have a spare hour or so, I recommend giving it a look-see. I'll spoil the ending for the sake of continuing on with this column: Flash is a proprietary architecture that Apple has no control over. Thus, when Flash-based elements wreak havoc on the stability of Apple platforms, Apple can't do much to fix the issue--nor can the company convert the 32-bit Flash binary over to Apple's goal of a system-wide, 64-bit experience.

Naturally, Apple's only real choice has been to dump support for Flash in certain use situations--namely, the company's iPhone (and surely the iPad as well, given the supposed similarities in their underlying operating systems). In order to incorporate a similar level of interactivity and video processing as delivered by Flash, Apple's turned to a combined replacement of HTML5 and JavaScript. But the media codec that Apple's thrown its support behind for HTML-based video rendering is H.264 . Ain't nothing open about that.

The enemy of Apple's proprietary enemy might be the company's friend, but it's no friend to the Internet.

Unlike the video compression Ogg Theora--the competing solution for HTML5 video rendering that's been championed and incorporated by Mozilla--H.264 is patented. You can't redistribute H.264 codecs per the license, nor will you likely be able to stream your own H.264 content without paying the piper at some point in the future . To Mozilla, this is just a complete slap in the face to the company's belief in a royalty-free Internet. Without the innate ability for anyone to freely code some HTML, churn CSS, or hack JavaScript, the Web would not be in the state it is today. Licensing core technologies stunts innovation.

Oh, and H.264 also violates the GPL for those seeking to spin off of Mozilla's initiatives--the free distribution rights guaranteed by the GPL doesn't mesh with code that's patent-encumbered. Or, as said by Mozilla's vice president of engineering, Mike Shaver :

"We want to make sure that the Web experience is good for all users, present and future. I want to make sure that when a child in India or Brazil or Kenya discovers the internet, there isn’t a big piece of it (video) that they can’t afford to participate in. I want to make sure that there are no toll-booth barriers to entry for someone building a whole new browser, or bringing a browser to a whole new device or OS, or making and using tools for creating standard web content."

Thus, we are left with fragmentation between those that stand behind H.264 and those that, for whatever reasons, would prefer to support the competing open-source codec Ogg Theora. Apple doesn't believe that Ogg Theora has enough hardware support to warrant the switch, not to mention the confusing patent situations the codec could find itself in were it to attempt to improve its quality to H.264-levels. Google, who commands considerable power in the discussion thanks to YouTube, has almost single-handedly decided matters by opting for H.264-based encoding (even though the Chrome browser supports both codecs). Mozilla, as mentioned, refuses to incorporate the H.264 codec on principle alone.

But can you really blame Apple? I suppose the company is caught up between a digital rock and hard place--with the Flash architecture closed off to Apple's tweaking, the company has no choice but to opt for the combination of HTML5 and H.264. Yet this, in itself, presents a situation that won't necessarily close Apple off to delivering rich media for its devices, but one that impacts the general openness of the Web as a whole. It's going to take a bigger iPad to wipe up all that bad Internet karma.

David Murphy (@ Acererak) is a technology journalist and former Maximum PC editor. He writes weekly columns about the wide world of open-source as well as weekly roundups of awesome, freebie software. Befriend him on Twitter, especially if you have an awesome app or game you're dying to recommend!

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