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It’s about the quality, it’s about the freedom

So, here we are. Free formats, Open Media. Fine words, fine words, but what do they mean to you?

Perhaps not much yet, but hear me out.

Those words mean HD-quality video. They mean high quality music at small file sizes. They mean office files that work everywhere, no matter the system. They mean playlists that you can actually share. And more importantly: they mean freedom from corporation locks.

Yes… corporations. They want to lock your files, your media. Try to backup a DVD film of yours. Oh, that’s right, it doesn’t work. That’s how many of them maintain their software monopoly and their hold on the gadget market. At the cost of the freedom of their customers. Your freedom.

Wouldn’t you rather support companies that won’t take that freedom away? That can only happen if you use free formats, so the companies are forced by demand to sell open media and players that work with free formats. Don’t you wish to be free to use your media anywhere you want? Maybe you heard of DRM already, but that is only the tip of the iceberg of non-free formats.

A much bigger concern is that non-free formats either belong to a company who will not allow them to be used anywhere but in their own products, or said company demands that everyone pays a license to use those formats. For instance, when you buy a DVD film you are paying not only for the already over-priced content, but also for the license to use it. Here’s another anedocte: perhaps you remember the original Xbox. Although it had a DVD drive like a certain other competitor, unlike it, the Xbox could not play DVD films. Microsoft avoided paying such license by forcing its consumers to buy an expensive remote control to cover the license fees. That’s certainly not how you serve your consumers. And let me not even get started on MP3. Ask Microsoft how they feel about paying billions in damages to Alcatel-Lucent so that people may continue to use a format that sounds like VHS audio.

Non-free formats are of the interest of no one but the people who own patents on them. The freedom to spare the money to pay for unnecessary licenses should not be taken lightly.

Still not convinced? Audio CDs have arguably become out of fashion with the turn of the century, so a few have moved to the next distribution method: online stores for digital music. Now, imagine. There’s this guy, he’s just a bloke struggling to make a good service out of representing musicians and gain a commission while at it. He’s the middle man. But since he has not yet become filthy rich, it turns out he can’t pay all the licenses required to sell music in non-free formats, and he knows he can’t just sell them in free formats, because people don’t know they should use free formats or just don’t care. So he either gives up or goes illegal and prays nobody notices.

You — yes you — can avoid this. All you gotta do is use free formats like Vorbis (.ogg) and FLAC for music, instead of MP3 and whatever they try to promote as its successor. Or use Theora (.ogv) for video.

Still not convinced? Okay, back to the subject of freedom and liberty. The concept of Open Media is one that means two things: freedom in the use of the chosen format for any and whatever reason (only possible when you deal with free formats) and freedom to use the content for any and whatever reason (only possible when the content is made available under a free license). To achieve Open Media, a special kind of nirvana to some, a useful tool to others, these two battles to free content must be fought. Free formats and free licenses. And Open Media is only one step for the betterment of humanity.

Does it sound like some hippy bullshit? It’s not. It’s about leaving a better world for the next generations.

Well, but is it about quality as well as it is about the freedom? Hell yeah.

Public tests show that Vorbis is far superior to MP3 and other more modern lossy formats like Musepack and AAC. Classic, Pop, Rock, any kind of music! And it has multi-channel support! DJs know the power of Vorbis and, thanks to Ogg’s streaming capabilities, so do online radio owners.

On the speech front nothing beats Speex. It’s powerful, scalable and people use it in such different areas as podcasts, VoIP, audio books, and talking robots. Record a sample of your voice and compare the quality and the file size between a Speex and an MP3 file. The result is staggering. Not only is the Speex file way smaller, it sounds better!

And in the lossless audio front, FLAC is unbeatable. Good compression, low CPU overhead and — blasphemy! — it works on portable players. It’s everyone’s favorite choice for archiving music digitally. Metallica uses FLAC and so should you.

That covers audio, but what about video? The future will likely hold Dirac, but right now you have Theora. In its early years, Theora has suffered from bad support in tools, which made it look as if it had bad quality. Nothing could be farther from truth. Theora rivals most MPEG-4 formats, it beats Xvid, and it’s ready to provide the world with video for everyone for the next five or more years until something better comes along. And that at a fraction of CPU power used by its rivals. Theora’s performance makes it the ideal choice for video in low-powered devices like the XO laptop from the OLPC project or mobile phones. It is that good.

What if you wanted to share audio or video with your friends? Why, you would have XSPF for that. It is the one playlist format that gets it right. No, seriously. Try compare it with any other. It is no wonder multimedia applications like VLC are using it internally. It’s simple, it’s pratical, and it does everything one may want from a playlist and more.

We talked about the stuff you and I use, but what about the niche markets? The stuff only a few use? Are you wondering about your graphic designer friend? Then fret not. Until recently, graphic designers were forced to use proprietary formats to work with vector graphics. Now? Now they have SVG, a browser-compatible, scriptable and cool format. Your friend can use it for both simple drawings and complex applications. How complex, you ask? Well, let’s mix SVG, Theora and bit of scripting and you get this. Pretty cool, uh?

The formats are here, but they can’t make the decision for you. It’s you who must decide if you want Open Media or not. Make the world a better place. Support freedom, support quality. Use Open Media, use free formats.

Theora Sea, the YouTube of Ogg Theora

Hello everyone. Are you enjoying the new design and main page of SOM? The Spanish version of SOM will be available soon.

I would like to take this opportunity to talk about one of the greatest things to ever happen to Theora: the Theora Sea website. Really! And I just found out about it now, today, a hour ago. Think of it as a mix of YouTube and Digg for Ogg video only. Most amazing thing. I have always felt the need to build an application like that and finally someone took that burden away from me, while doing it pretty well. When I say Theora Sea is one of the greatest things to hit the Web for the Ogg cause I kid you not. It uses a mix of Cortado and ITheora to achieve the embeding and does it very well. It’s not the <video> element, but hey it does the trick.

For the love of all that is sacred to you! Take this chance and promote Theora Sea (along with SOM)! The more people sharing video there, the more people that will know Theora, the more people that will use it, the more software there will be to work with it.

The HTML 5 Wars (and why you should avoid them)

As some of you may be aware, the WHATWG has dropped the recommendation for Theora and Vorbis in the video/audio section of the HTML 5 specification. Many believe it’s due to pressure from Nokia and Apple and, while that may be correct, it’s only the tip of the iceberg.

There’s much that can be done to revert this situation, but the flood of comments on the WHATWG list of “revert the change!” and “DON’T KILL THE OGGS” is not one of them. Their decision wasn’t an easy one and the problem is more complicated than it seems. What you should do if you want to “SAVE THE OGGS” is do something else entirely, which is to actually go ahead and prove that Theora is a popular good format with good quality. That’s the only way the companies will ever bother to support it, because — and face it — the recommendation for Theora/Vorbis may have stayed there and changed little of the outcome. The companies were never forced to support them in the first place.

So, how do you make Theora and Vorbis popular? Why, by the very same process that made MP3 so ubiquitous: by using it and by sharing it. Only by advocating the formats will you see interest from the corporations. There is no other way around it. Let me write that one more time: there is no other way around it. Backup your films in Theora. Backup your music in Vorbis. Share podcasts and videocasts in these formats. And do not wait for tomorrow; do it now. And by now, I mean yesterday.

There’s a lot of companies out there who do not wish to see Theora and Vorbis succeed, and they don’t even have to make much of an effort to affect them. The masses out there with their expensive iPod toys don’t care about Vorbis or Theora. Most of them don’t even know what they are.

If you want Ogg to be taken seriously, you need to help change that mentality, one person at a time. If you think the problem lies in the tools, then either create them or pay someone to do it for you. If you think the problem lies in the lack of content out there, then share it. That’s the only way to get there.

Now on to dispel some myths:

  • Theora may not be state of the art right now (that will change), and H.264 may look better, but Theora has a balance between size, simplicity, quality, and performance which make it ideal for the Web. It is that good
  • Theora CAN do HD content. Who said it can’t?
  • Theora is not patent-free, it’s royalty-free. On2 claims to own a patent on it, but they have donated it to the public, granting eternal access so that anyone may use the patent (and thus Theora) for any possible reason
  • Vorbis, on the other hand, is patent-free. The Xiph.Org Foundation was very careful during the planing stages to only use compression techniques whose patents had already expired, and they still managed to create a state of the art format for general audio compression
  • Submarine patents may still exist, however. They may always exist. It’s a valid concern that affects many other formats. To tell you the truth, though, considering the old algorithms in Theora if a patent-troll decides to pop its ugly head out of its hideout, time will likely take care of it and expire whatever patent they may hold
  • Ian Hickson of the WHATWG was not bribed. Yes, this needed to be said
  • And yes, Apple owns a patent on MPEG-4. If this mess is an attempt to cash-in on that is a completely speculative matter, but I’m inclined to say no… for now
  • The W3C accepts comments from non-members, and they may likely revise HTML 5 if many people request, but keep in mind that recommending to support Vorbis and Theora does not mean that companies will do so
  • However, HTML 4 has never mandated support for JPEG and PNG. Whoever tells you otherwise is lying
  • And finally, Ogg, Vorbis, and Theora are not alone. Big projects like OLPC, Jabber, and Wikimedia Foundation are supporting it. They are not the ones with the big bucks, but nonetheless their support is vital and shows that those formats are a viable, good choice for multimedia.

Keep spreading those files.

Does your browser do video?

Those who haven’t left the planet in the last year have at some point heard of HTML 5, the new improved language that will likely power the Web in the coming years.

One of the many great features it sports, which will be of interest to free formats enthusiastics, is the multimedia elements: <video> and <audio>. Imagine being able to post video and audio in your blog as easily as you do with images. On forums, on online shops, on office intranets, on anything. It really has the potentional to revolutionize the Web. No more Flash, no more YouTube. Independence! And all of this using Vorbis and Theora as the baseline codecs!

Sounds too good to be true? Mayhap. I’ll be honest with you. There are problems, starting right there with the browsers. You, the users, need to understand that this will only take off if you start using those elements to 1) force browser makers to support them and 2) make other people aware of them. The browsers have to support those elements and its associated codecs, but that will only happen if there’s a demand for it, and that demand can only come from its users.

Firefox is heading in that direction, and Opera has shown interest too with already two experimental builds, but what about the other browsers? The way I see it, if you see promise in those features you should request your browser maker for them. And, meanwhile, you should probably post content in the Web using Theora and Vorbis through the <video> and <audio> elements.

With free software browsers the process is easy: you either request or vote for that feature in their bug tracker, or you code it yourself and give them the code, which will look good in your resume.

With proprietary browsers it is a bit more tricky. You have to contact the company and hope they care about your opinion. But it’s either that or nothing, so it’s worth a try at least.

Finally, you can download a Firefox video-enabled to help test it for bugs, or you can look into Opera’s experimental build, which unfortunately only works in Microsoft Windows currently. Then, you can test any of them in the demo pages that both Opera and Mozilla’s Chris Double provide.

Open Contest to make banners for SOM

The Open Clip Art Library is hosting a contest for us, and anyone may participate. The gist of it is: make a banner for SOM based on our logo. If you win, you get instant fame and elite points.

It’s a good opportunity to test your artistic skills, so go ahead and participate. Submissions are accepted til the 20th of September.

On another news, instructions on how to translate our content are now available. If you’d like to see SOM in your native language, do join in and translate whatever you can. Our message is important for everyone; not knowing English should not be an obstacle to spread the word.

Why it’s so important to promote this iniative?

Free formats exist for one reason only: they are supposed to work everywhere. There are proprietary and free operating systems out there, and their programs may be proprietary or free too. You, as a user, choose the one you like, the one that works for you, because software is a tool. If you want to pay the expensive tag price of Photoshop, by all means do so. You want a free alternative, then you get the GIMP. They are tools. You will see people whine about the good and bad sides of this and that tool, but when it comes to it, they are tools. If you aren’t happy with your tool, you get a new one.

So, what is the problem in the computer world? If anyone can go and grab a new tool anytime, then there’s no problems, right? That’s when reality beats us with a large troll club. Software deals with files, those little bits and bytes that store information on your computer. Those files are not all equal; some are images, some are video clips, some are office documents. When you switch from one tool to another, you risk not being able to work anymore with your older files, because they work only under the tool you were using, and your new shiny tool, in spite of being so cool, can’t open them.

What if there was a format that would work under both programs? Chances are you already know there are such formats, so why does the problem remain? Why do free formats need to be promoted? Because the tool makers, the software developers, don’t deem it as a priority to make their creations work with free formats. And because the programs don’t work with free formats, the users aren’t aware of them or have grown a distaste towards them. It’s an egg and chicken problem.

  • Did you know that many webcomics are only available under GIF, even though PNG is a much better format?
  • Did you know that doesn’t import SVG properly? Nor does it import Vorbis, Speex, or Theora at all?
  • Did you know that Microsoft Office does not import OpenDocument?
  • Did you know that Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Flash have no idea what to do with a SVG file?
  • Did you know that artists that release their works under a Creative Commons license do it usually under a proprietary format?
  • Did you know that there aren’t many video editors that work with Theora, in spite of it being the standard for video on the Web?

These and many others are examples of why you need to get the word out, why it’s important to raise awareness of free formats. Not only because of the general public, but because of the content creators and the software developers. So that whatever tool you use on whatever system you are dealing with, be it a mobile phone, a laptop, a media center, or even your fridge, they will all be able to open each others files.

This article is a simplification of why free formats are so important. We don’t intend to patronize anyone, but our aim here is to reach everyone — even your aunt Gertrude — and make them understand that there are many obstacles to make the digital era a better place.

New Campaign: SOM and Folding@home

People are already taking note of SOM and linking back to us by using our banners. We really appreciate the help of those pioneers. More will come, but you were the first.

In that spirit, we created a team at Folding@home. So join team 84717, and you’ll help science and promote SOM in the process!

Hey, it’s for science.

Banners and buttons now available!

Go here and grab whichever ones you like. All of them are under the Public Domain. Use them whichever way you like.

This is a sad day for interoperability in the Web

Today, Adobe Systems Incorporated announced that they will extend their Flash platform to support the proprietary H.264 and HE-AAC formats.

The Xiph.Org Foundation has previously contacted Adobe to consider extending Flash to support the Open Media formats Vorbis, Theora, and Speex. Adobe developers replied by stating it would be unwise as it would increase the file size of the Flash Player, and yet, that is what will happen now, with the unfair procedure by Adobe to ignore the backing of our formats by the W3C through SVG and SMIL, by the WHATWG through HTML 5, and by the XMPP Standards Foundation through Jabber’s Jingle.

There is clearly a need for a non-patented, royalty-free standard for video and audio on the web. The Xiph.Org Foundation provided such standards. Adobe Systems Incorporated decided to ignore this and back the use of formats with submarine patents and no clear advantage over Open Media formats. Interoperability on the Web? Nah, screw that.

The Xiph.Org Foundation will continue to provide support for the corporations who seek to create interoperability on the Web. We will not stop the improving process of our formats.

The Xiph.Org Foundation will announce soon the Web Video/Audio Interoperability Campaign through our Spread Open Media project. This campaign will bring together the community and the browser developers to speed up support of the <video> and <audio> elements of HTML 5, as well as the use of SVG and SMIL in order to create an Open Web. Be part of such vision.

Adobe Systems Incorporated describes itself as “Adobe revolutionizes how the world engages with ideas and information — anytime, anywhere and through any medium”. We would like to work together with Adobe Systems Incorporated to reach such goal. However, we do not agree on their approach in this issue, and we would like to ask them to consider their stance.

The Xiph.Org Foundation is a non-profit organization that provides a collection of open source, multimedia-related projects. It is the most aggressive effort to put the foundation standards of Internet audio and video into the public domain, where all Internet standards belong.

Thoughts on Open Format Obstacles

A discussion on the Xiph Advocacy Mailing List about the lack of available Wordpress plugins for Open Formats got me thinking about the obstacles these formats face in becoming popularized.

In this specific case, we were attempting to find a good plugin for the SOM blog that would allow us to embed theora video and vorbis audio in our posts. To do so meant modifying a pre-existing plugin so they can accept these formats. It is frustrating for a “mid-level” user (of which I consider myself), with knowledge of open formats and their importance, to be unable to implement using them.

Thankfully, there are those of us who understand code quite well. In my case, I know very little about PHP, and as such, find the idea of modifying actual code quite intimidating, as would probably many mid-level users.

The question that arises is how do we expect Open Formats to take off without the ability for average and mid-level users to integrate these formats easily? Obviously this gets at a central issue that SOM will hope to solve — taking Open Formats from the more obscure to the more commonplace. A plugin that plays well with theora and vorbis is a great resource we can hopefully offer to the WP community, but that is only one of many ways we can move open formats into a more common area.

Keeping the average user in mind is very important. To truly spread open media, we have to always keep the lowest-common-denominator in the back of our mind in terms of technological prowess. Without that, Open Formats will potentially remain niche as opposed to ubiquitous.