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Open Industry Standards For Audio & Video On The Web

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Erik Huggers Erik Huggers | 14:30 UK time, Tuesday, 12 August 2008

One of the key drivers in making audio and video distribution possible via the internet is the great advances in compression technologies (codecs). Obviously, broadband adoption and ever more capable PCs and mobile devices helped a lot - but in the end, it has been the codecs that have made the real difference.

Looking back over the last decade, the advances in this space were mainly driven by strong competition between software companies. Each had its own motivations for creating proprietary codecs and file formats that lock in customers. Besides the obvious downside of that approach, there were some benefits as well: fast innovation and attractive terms and conditions from a licensing perspective.

Having said that, the BBC has always been a strong advocate and driver of open industry standards. Without these standards, TV and radio broadcasting would simply not function. I believe that the time has come for the BBC to start adopting open standards such as H.264 and AAC for our audio and video services on the web. These technologies have matured enough to make them viable alternatives to other solutions.

The advantage for the audience will be a noticeable improvement in audio and video quality. Furthermore, it should become easier for the media to simply work across a broader range of devices. While it's not a magic bullet, it certainly is a significant step in the right direction. The first service to make content available using these open standards based codecs will be iPlayer. Anthony Rose will have more details of introducing H.264 to the iPlayer later today. It is our intention for other AV services across bbc.co.uk to follow quickly.

Some people may ask: why are you not using your own Dirac codec? I am fully committed to the development and success of Dirac, but for now those efforts are focused on high-end broadcast applications. This autumn, we intend to show the world what can be achieved with these technologies.

Photo of Phil Lewis using H.264 at this year's Mashed

This is a rather important moment for me personally. Having been responsible for driving one of those proprietary alternatives, it feels great to be at the forefront in driving the next wave in internet audio and video technologies and services.

Erik Huggers is Director, BBC Future Media and Technology.


  • Comment number 1.

    Well, looking forward to hearing what Anthony has to say...

    Making the content openly available is as important as using open standards. Even open standards can be wrapped in DRM and proprietary protocols (e.g. Flash).

  • Comment number 2.

    Does this mean that iPlayer on Freesat is a step closer?

  • Comment number 3.

    Positive rumblings... I like the overall sound of this, but I look forward to more concrete steps being taken in the near future. Very encouraging to hear pro-Open Standards noises from Mr. Huggers, particularly given his employment history (something I know many others are also keeping a keen eye on). Is this Mr. Hugger's attempt to show us all that he is actually he's not just Microsoft's "man inside", and that he's not going to be naturally biased towards a Windows-based solution as a result of his past work?

    Is this the first sign of Mr. Huggers taking the open standards baton and forging ahead towards free, open standards on a viable platform to the benefit of all in the UK? Thinking ahead, taking an important step like this can only be beneficial in opening up the BBC's programming to the many people who wish to create something more from it; PVR manufacturers, individuals coding their own mashups for the benefit of other web users?

    I'm sure some people have some amazing ideas which we can't conceive of right now, but by providing this stepping stone the spark will be provided for other peoples' ideas... (Maybe iPlayer on my Pocket PC phone isn't too far away after all, either?)

    The cynic in me wonders whether what we'll end up seeing is H.264 being wrapped in DRMed Windows Media filetypes, which is not really progress at all - just a sidestep. That would be a step in the wrong direction, but hopefully something like this will never happen. Equally, H.264 inside a FLV wrapper won't be much good either - would we be too optimistic to hope for plain old video files in plain old H.264? (Flash fallback would of course have to stay for people who aren't ready to migrate... but will we have the option?)

    Either way, I look forward to seeing what happens from here. Let's hope this is the start of something really good!

  • Comment number 4.

    "...the BBC has always been a strong advocate and driver of open industry standards"

    It didn't look that when when the BBC decided that only Windows PCs would be be able to use iPlayer. Those asking for open standards at that time were arrogantly dismissed.

    It's only just over a year ago that the Open Source Consortium were planning to report the BBC to the EU because it was providing programming for Microsoft customers, but excluding others.

  • Comment number 5.

    I have to agree wholeheartedly with AlanAudio. The BBC was a strong advocate and driver of open industry standards. The Corporation developed many of the technologies and methods used in TV and radio broadcasting and narrowcasting today, allowing them to be used and incorporated worldwide.

    However, that proud history was throw in the bin when iPlayer was announced and it was only pressure from outside the Corporation that eventually changed that situation to allow iPlayer on anything other than a Windows PC.

    The BBC also used to a be a trustworthy source of unbiased truth, but that is another proud history that has gone in the bin in recent years.

  • Comment number 6.

    BBC SEES THE LIGHT...and about time too!

    Finally going the Apple route of AAC and H264 rather than the bog-awful Microsoft route of all their crummy useless DRM ridden proprietory junk.

    I never thought this day would come, as I had come to believe that Microsoft owned the BBC.

  • Comment number 7.

    Did this come about because they had promised to deliver the iPlayer for Mac by the end of '08 I wonder?

    And they couldn't do it with Microsoft??

  • Comment number 8.

    The self importance of these guys is incredible!

    "it feels great to be at the forefront in driving the next wave in internet audio and video technologies and services."

    And these technologies have been used in iTunes for YEARS!!!


  • Comment number 9.

    I do like the sound of these proposals, but I'm afraid that, after experiences with iPlayer, DRM and the lack of platform neutrality, I'll only believe it when I see it.

  • Comment number 10.

    It seems to me that Erik doesn't actually understand what an 'open standard' really is.

    AAC and H264 are patent encumbered, so they are not truely open standards. They are merely popular, and not aligned with any one big organisation in partcular, but they are only available to large organisations who ran afford the unreasonable and discriminatory patent licenses.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_standard explains well this issue. Especially interesting is this quote: "many governments (including the Danish, French and Spanish governments singly and the EU collectively) specifically affirmed that "open standards" required royalty-free [patent] licenses."

    When will the BBC specifically affirm that "open standards" at the BBC means royalty-free patent licenses?

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_standard does not list AAC/H264, but it does list some codecs that the BBC shamefully ignores.

  • Comment number 11.

    I can't believe I'm hearing this - especially from an ex-Microsoft man!

    Endorsing open standards and giving special mention of H.264 and AAC codecs is a monumental leap forward, when it openly flies in the face of what Microsoft has been trying to force on consumers for years.

    Ironically this is what Apple have chosen to adopt across their product line (iTunes, iPod, iPhone, Apple TV etc) even though the cynics and anti-apple camp seem to think that anything not developed by Microsoft (eg Apple) is 'proprietary' and anything developed by Microsoft is 'standard'.

    Great news... I just hope this trend continues.

  • Comment number 12.

    Agree with #10. Please make sure you understand the word before you use it to sell your idea on what should and shouldn't be used.

    I find it very deceptive and you're confusing people who know little about what it really means to be an Open Standard.

    You should consider Ogg, FLAC and Theora.

  • Comment number 13.

    Ogg, FLAC, Theora?????

    The Linux geeks are here to muddle the world further with 500 new varieties to make sure we only ever live in confusion.



  • Comment number 14.

    JonaMac, Not sure why you automatically think Ogg, FLAC and Theora are only used by Linux 'geeks' since I use them on my Mac and a lot of MP3 player manufactueres supports them already (apart from Apple who when the iPod launched actually only played AAC but added MP3 support later on due to overwhelming demand)

    Not sure also how many people who comments on this blog are actual web pioneers and developers who knows what they're talking about. But I suspect less than 1%.

    To a developer, it isn't about camp. It is about evaluating the best business choice.

    And no AAC and MPEG-4 are not open standards.

    They don't require royalties to stream and distribute but they require hardware and software manufacturers to pay patent licence fee. As far as it goes, they could one day request royalties from streaming and distribution then everyone is screwed.

    Again. Learn the definition before you use it. I also noticed you're self-contradictory when you mention about Microsoft being proprietory and Apple is not? Enough said.

  • Comment number 15.

    H.264 and AAC are both MPEG standards, and any company is free to develop encoders and decoders for these standards. So to my mind they are open standards using the typical definition that's used to describe open standards for audio and video codecs - as opposed to them being proprietray formats, such as WMV/WMA, which Microsoft controls totally.

    Furthermore, for all the arguments about what is and what isn't an open standard, you seem to be forgetting that H.264 and AAC are the best-performing video and audio codecs available today, which IMO is far more important than whether there are any patents attached to them or not.

    They're also the codecs that are being used for HDTV channels, and they will eventually replace the MPEG-2 video and MP2 audio codecs that are used for SDTV channels, and AAC/AAC+ on DAB+ will replace MP2 on DAB. So they're without question the right codecs for the BBC to adopt.

    At the end of the day, we should be thankful - or at least be hoping - that Erik Huggers is more interested in the technologies that he's overseeing than his predecessor was (Ashley Highfield wouldn't know a video encoder if one landed on him), rather than continually going on about the fact that he used to work for Microsoft.

    Also, the BBC has an appalling record when it comes to adopting the right audio codecs on digital radio, because it was the BBC's decision not to adopt AAC for DAB back in the late 1990s which is the reason for DAB providing such dire audio quality today, and the BBC has had the opportunity to use AAC+ on their Internet radio streams since 2004, but they still aren't using it yet. So we should be applauding positive developments, not criticising them.

  • Comment number 16.

    @lordskyro - (apart from Apple who when the iPod launched actually only played AAC but added MP3 support later on due to overwhelming demand)

    This statement is incorrect, the iPod has always supported MP3, it was in fact, AAC that was added later.

  • Comment number 17.

    This codec will ensure BBC content will be available to the widest possible audience without the hassles and grief that come with most all other streaming formats.

    This is an intelligent decision and fundamentally fantastic news!

    This is what Wogan would call 'good old auntie Beeb' at her best...

    As a codec it works incredibly well, it's simple to implement, it's reliable, it will be around a long time and it's not closed.

    ( as a relief and a bonus it means that at least Microsoft isn't going to be able to dicate the online future of BBC media streaming)

  • Comment number 18.

    Chris Wilson just pointed out that Erik's own link for "open industry standards", includes "3. No Royalty", which means H.264 isn't an open industry standard by the definition Erik chose :-).

    H.264 is open to a degree, but its patent encumbrance makes it less than fully open, in particular because it's incompatible with software freedom in jurisdictions where software patents apply.

  • Comment number 19.

    I have now changed the "Open Standards" link in Erik's post to a link to Wikipedia which gives a more comprehensive and balanced view of possible definitions of open standards.

    Thanks for bringing this to my attention.

    Nick Reynolds (editor, BBC Internet blog)

  • Comment number 20.

    All I care about is whether or not I can play a streaming AAC of BBC1 on my iPhone. If not, then you still have a long way to go.

  • Comment number 21.

    First, I'll declare interest, I have done freelance development for the BBC recently, so, to some extent, I've taken their shilling.

    However, I've also made (and will make) constant blogged complaints about proprietary (and often M$oft-centric) thread appearing in a great deal of the BBCs new technical work (iPlayer, messing around with C#, Flash etc.). I also am very wary, of the current attitudes at the 'top' of BBC new media, since they seem to bear some relationship to, for example, Mr Hugger's previous bosses.

    This 'announcement' is very partial. These standards aren't open and, of course, we're dealing only with a tiny bit of the complete technical domain. I believe, for example, that they should release their end-of-life games into the open source community. They'd receive a tremendous amount of engagement and kudos in return.

    Once, I see a much more wholehearted and general approach enshrined as BBC policy, I'll become much more prepared to listen.

  • Comment number 22.

    Erik and Nick et al, we can argue about semantics till the Sun goes black, but let's not. Whether you consider patent-encumbered formats to be "open standards" or not, the practical effect is clear.

    I work for a Linux distributor (Mandriva). The practical effect in this case is very simple. We cannot legally distribute H.264 video or AAC decoders with our Linux distribution. Free software / open source licenses can never be compatible with limited patent grants, so we cannot include any of the available free software / open source decoders for these formats - ffmpeg with H.264 decoding enabled, libfaad - with our distribution because this is an infringement of the patents on these formats, in jurisdictions where such patents are allowed.

    We could in theory distribute a commercial decoder with the commercial edition of our distribution, if someone were to pay for a license to the patents and create a closed-source decoder for them. But this is not currently available, and even if it were, it does nothing to help those who support free / open source software.

    If you truly claim to be in favour of openness and open access, you should not support patent-encumbered formats, whether you can pedantically claim them to be 'open' or not. The semantics are irrelevant; the practical upshot is that you lock out users of free / open source software from your products. This is not acceptable when perfectly good alternatives that *are* compatible with free / open source licensing are available.

  • Comment number 23.

    H.264+AAC? I can't applaud enough.

    While, yes, it's unfortunate that MPEG is patent-encumbered, it's still by accepted industry definitions an open standard—RAND not meaning “free” doesn't preclude that.

    Further, it's unfortunate that there isn't a viable alternative to MPEG at present (just having a CODEC is only a small part of the battle, after all), and it's good that the BBC have been developing alternatives (e.g., Dirac), however slow progress might be.

    But in real terms, right now, MPEG4 is ubiquitous. iPlayer should have been built on H.264+AAC from the very start—the decision not to made very little sense at all (while I know why DRM-encumbered WMV, then Flash, was chosen, it smacked of lack of willingness to argue with flawed arguments rather than anything else).

    Hopefully the fact that Flash 9 supports H.264 streaming natively and the iPhone (and, I'm guessing, Wii) versions of the iPlayer site use H.264 streaming already will mean that it becomes the stock format for online distribution of content from the BBC.

  • Comment number 24.

    Side-note: any chance you guys could fix your UTF-8 support at some point?

  • Comment number 25.

    To be very cynical too, when a senior ex-M$soft employee approves of 'open' stuff, echoes of 'Embrace, Extend and Extinguish' can be clearly heard...

  • Comment number 26.

    To those people who are still cynical I would quote Erik's blog post from January of this year:

    "It is true that I worked at Microsoft for a long time and frankly speaking, I am proud of that. Right now, my loyalties are to the BBC and the BBC alone. I will only make decisions that are in the best interest of the licence fee payer."

    I would also point you to Ashley Highfield's post about Open Standards from last year.

    And to AdamWill2 I would ask this.

    Would the alternatives you mention allow for the kind of encryption necessary for the BBC to honour its' current agreement on the iPlayer with the BBC Trust (and rights holders)?

    For example would those alternatives ensure that downloaded BBC iPlayer programmes expire after 30 days?

    Nick Reynolds (editor, BBC Internet blog)

  • Comment number 27.

    Nick: I don't know the answer to that, I suspect it's 'no'. But I expect it wouldn't be a tough problem to solve. Have you considered that, or asked - say - the Xiphophorous folks about it? There is no fundamental incompatibility between DRM and truly open codecs.

    It just strikes me that this whole project has been approached from the start from the standpoint of "let's throw together something that works on Windows and call it done". It's a bit sad that an organisation like the BBC, with a public service remit and a generally well-clued-up group of techies, cannot grasp and embrace the importance of true open access as opposed to just getting some 'content' to some people as fast as possible. If you can't, what hope the rest of the world?

  • Comment number 28.

    Do all rights holders demand this extreme form of DRM (which almost certainly will preclude FOSS and consequently make the question of the openness of the codecs used rather irrelevant)? Are there not possibilities for using technologies such as watermarking and cooperating with ISPs etc. which would satisfy rights holders without both penalising the honest majority and blocking off a potential source of innovation?

    Even if not and if 3rd party rights holders are adamant about extreme DRM, and the BBC's negotiating power as a major commissioning organisation is as surprisingly weak as it appears to be, why is the BBC still not leveraging the (for-distribution/sale-in-the-UK-only) programmes (especially radio/news) it still makes itself? Why are the audio streams still mostly only in Real audio? Why are there not more pod/vidcasts? If there were more, and they didn't disappear after a week, wouldn't it be great if we could annotate/enrich them? (I know the BBC already thought of stuff like that years ago, but where is it?)

    The dot org that never was -


    - says it all really ;-)

  • Comment number 29.

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  • Comment number 30.

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