Firefox Guys Admit That Competition Is What Drives Innovation

from the imagine-if-they-had-patents? dept

For years, we (and certainly plenty of other people) have pointed out that monopolies, like patents and copyrights, don’t drive innovation — competition does. In fact, having monopolies does the opposite of driving innovation, since the monopolists have fewer reasons to innovate and upgrade since they’re not fighting against competitors. This point is made quite clear in an admission by Mike Beltzner, the director of Firefox at Mozilla, in an article at Slate discussing how much browsers have been innovating lately:

“Were there not other competitors who were just as interested in making Web browsers faster, I don’t know if we’d be able to find the gains that we can find,” he said. “Now it’s a game of one-upping each other.”

Imagine if instead of thinking that way, the concept of a browser had been patented way back when? Does anyone honestly think that we’d have as innovative a web world as we do today?

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Comments on “Firefox Guys Admit That Competition Is What Drives Innovation”

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37 Comments
Mr. Oizo says:

Re: Efficiency Theora vs H.264

I’ve also been hearing about this H.264 versus theora stuff. However, something nobody seems to mention is the aspect of quality versus compression ratio. It seems sufficient to claim that ‘theora is an open standard, so it must be better’. Are there actually any hints that theora _is_ better than H.264 ? Suppose that to achieve the same quality you need 20% more storage capacity. In that case I could understand why google would prefer H.264; and in that case the argument has nothing at all to do with who owns the format, but rather with true competition,

Modplan (profile) says:

Re: Re: Efficiency Theora vs H.264

Theora does not quite have the same quality as h.264, but it’s short sighted to make the issue entirely about that. The main issue is about barriers of entry, innovation and adoption alongside the fact the web is entirely based on open standards, and should continue to be so.

Not to mention Theora was originally going to be the official standard for video, but Apple and I think Nokia objected, claiming submarine patents. This amounts to FUD – vested interests claiming that a known patent encumbered and comparatively high cost format is better than the potential of a free format being patent encumbered, even as Xiph.org (foundation behind Theora) has done numerous patent reviews, and the fact that this claim which relies on unfounded uncertainty has just as much basis in regards to any other software project today.

Here’s some explanations by others that are better at getting across the issues here.

http://bemasc.net/wordpress/2010/02/02/no-you-cant-do-that-with-h264/

http://www.0xdeadbeef.com/weblog/2010/01/html5-video-and-h-264-what-history-tells-us-and-why-were-standing-with-the-web/

Mr. Oizo says:

Re: Re: Re: Efficiency Theora vs H.264

I also prefer open standards, but they should be competitive. One cannot claim that big companies should be competitive on a level playing field and then demand from them that they _should_ use things like Theora/ogg/vorbis, although it is not as good.

Another, more reasonable argument, is to expect that big companies work with the community by publishing and opening up their own protocols.

Modplan (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Efficiency Theora vs H.264

Too late – it’s already demanded of them with HTML, demanded of them with CSS, demanded of them with HTTP, etc.

Open standards are fundamentally how the web works, and is the only possible way it can work in the way we generally expect it to today.

Also, standards are not mutually exclusive from competitive. There is nothing that says Theora has to be used indefinitely into the future, just that it’s currently the best option as a standard so to keep the same flexibility and ability for wide, unhampered usage that the internet is supposed to allow. It is perfectly possible and expected that new formats may complement or replace Theora if it were standardised, and that these new formats may compete with each other for inclusion, but should do so with the same aim and same openness as every other web standard.

The issue is that h.264 is the opposite of that. If people want to contest and put another format up for consideration, fine, but right now Theora is the best bet, or if you wait a few years, Dirac.

Mr. Oizo says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Efficiency Theora vs H.264

I don’t buy that argument.

The argument you bring forth sounds a bit like: okay, Theora is a looser, but we should favor that one regardless, while H.264 is the winner, which we should punish. This type of reasoning is quite similar to what the music industry tries to accomplish: this technology is a winner: let punish it; and our technology (or lack thereof) is a looser, but we should favor that anyway.

In this case there is not even a demand for Theora or Ogg. How many people use it on piratebay. How many mp3’s do you have and how many ogg’s ?

So, except from asking everybody involved to open up the H.264 standard or inventing a better encoder there are not much options left. If I were a company the decision would be clearcut.

Actually, thinking of it, it is probably best how it turned out. There is a HTML video element and the appropriate plugin to play it is something you can add to the browser. This truly makes the field competitive. If you _want_ Theora: well go for it. Nobody is stopping content providers anymore to do this.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Efficiency Theora vs H.264

“Theora is a looser, but we should favor that one regardless, while H.264 is the winner, which we should punish.”

You’re still looking at this from the wrong perspective. the reason for open standards is so anyone may implement them, including smaller players. To suggest a royalty encumbered format misses the point entirely.

Steven (profile) says:

Re: Re: Efficiency Theora vs H.264

Theora encoded files are not larger, but they do seem to be somewhat lower quality (and I mean noticeable in a side by side comparison, not in the same way Monster cables claim to provide better digital sound).

That being said, I’d rather have an open and free (as in freedom) standard that can be improved by everyone than a locked in proprietary standard.

Michael (profile) says:

Re: Re: Efficiency Theora vs H.264

“Better” is subjective. With competition, it gets sorted out by the market. Go back to the old VHS Betamax situation. You can easily argue that Betamax was “better” than VHS because of the picture quality and some additional features. However, the market decided that capacity was more important and VHS won the market.

There may be one particular feature that H.264 or Theora has that wins the market – or a combination of features – but it is the market that will decide what features matter and which is “better”.

vivaelamor (profile) says:

Re: Re: Efficiency Theora vs H.264

“However, something nobody seems to mention is the aspect of quality versus compression ratio.”

I seem to hear about little else, but I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt. There seems to be a strong argument that at high resolution Theora loses out but that at medium to low resolution (the majority of web video), Theora is as good if not better.

“It seems sufficient to claim that ‘theora is an open standard, so it must be better’.”

It would be more accurate to say ‘Theora is an open standard, which is better.’ Or another way just to make it crystal clear: being an open standard is better. The key distinction is that Theora does not have to be an open standard; it is not an inherent quality, it is a choice. H.264 could also have been an open standard and would have been better for it.

“Are there actually any hints that theora _is_ better than H.264 ? “

The disadvantages of Theora seem to be nit-picking in comparison to the advantages of it being open. If the disadvantages actually effected the suitability then you’d have a good argument. I have yet to see any explanation of how Theora’s disadvantages outweigh the advantage of it being open.

The notion of ‘competition’ in this respect is artificial and because of that hinders rather than helps. If it weren’t for patents in the first place then there wouldn’t be an issue over which codec to use. The belief that those who created Theora were incapable of coming up with something as good as H.264 had it not been for patent protection in the first place seems ridiculous. It’s like having a race where you win because you were first to the start line; the race hasn’t really been allowed to start.

Jon B. says:

Re: Re:

Yeah, makes me wonder why Mike said “admit”, as if ever said otherwise…

Apple and Google are shunning Theora because it someone MIGHT have a patent covering something in it (we’re looking at you, Nokia) and just waiting for some big company to implement it before they go on a sue-fest. That’s the only real reason. Not all the companies that MIGHT have a patent are coming out and saying “no, Theora doesn’t violate our patents”. Yes, that’s stupid, and may not even be legal in the US, but in Europe…

H.264 has patents, but the patent situation is clear and known, so it’s easier to just pay a license than take the chances on the open source alternative.

Anonymous Coward says:

“In fact, having monopolies does the opposite of driving innovation, since the monopolists have fewer reasons to innovate and upgrade since they’re not fighting against competitors.”

To some extent this is not necessarily true. Google has a huge market share yet they have innovated a lot. The key here is barriers to entry, when the government creates artificial barriers to entry (ie: patents/copyrights, government granted monopolies on cableco/telco infrastructure, taxi cab medallion laws, etc…) it hinders innovation.

Ryan says:

Re: Re:

Low barriers to entry facillitate competition(or at least the threat of it), so that’s still an artifact of a competitive market. Meanwhile, Google has had lots of competition in their endeavors, including Microsoft, Yahoo, Apple, etc., and the nature of Google’s primary revenue stream means that it is constantly competing with everything else for internet users’ attention so as to drive up advertising rates.

Richard Corsale (profile) says:

pfft really?

I think everyone knows that monopolies stifle innovation. The problem, is that patents are misrepresented as innovation, not monopolies.

Think of the innovation that took place (relatively) between the 50’s to the 70’s compared to the last 20 years… If you measure innovation in terms of quantity of patents … we should have colonies on Mars.

Patents are a sham, used to stifle innovation. Nothing is more feared by corporate HQ than disruptive technologies. They have effectively turned patents into a tool of legal attrition. Which they usually win, due to the artificially exhortation cost of patent litigation. Our patent system, as it is today, is a disgusting exhibit of corruption.

— thats all I have to say about that..

Andrew F (profile) says:

IE6

If you’re looking for an example of what happens when you have a browser monopoly, just look at Microsoft’s IE6. It had 90%+ of the market-share at its peak and was amazing for its time. Then Microsoft decided that Netscape was no longer a threat and decided to rest on its laurels for 5-6 years before Firefox was enough of a threat to justify releasing IE7.

NAMELESS.ONE says:

well were now goign to have to extend copyright again

ya know to the internet
its creator
his kids
his grand kids

then the computer makers
there kids
there grand kids

then the software coders
there kids
there grand kids

then we have the browser
there creators
there kids
there grand kids

OH and cause it uses electricity we need to extend it to that as well

so the people that make all the parts for towers and stations
there kids
there grand kids

then the tool makers
( see other post about a hammer to gt idea )

and then we can give you the new improved billion dollar
STARFOXY
only today we give it to you at 1$ off

Andrew says:

Benefits vs Harm of Monopoly dependent on Magnatude of Solution

Devils Advocate to the original question:

I concur that competition drives innovation in rapidly deployed, first to market, early bird / worm paradigms, but there are documented cases that a monopoly has proven beneficial where the required solution was so big that compartmentalizing it for the sake of competition would have been counterproductive. An example of this would be the early days of telecommunications. The US would not have been able to rapidly develop the baseline infrastructure without “Ma Bell”. Granted, once the infrastructure was hardened it was completely appropriate to dissolve the monopoly.

My point is that a Microsoft monopoly may have been completely appropriate in the budding years of browsing, developing open standards, et al. Patents are not eternal and we know the free market does a great job of policing itself once those patents expire…

Lawrence D'Oliveiro says:

Competition Requires A Market

It’s worth pointing out that Firefox is able to compete because it has a sustainable business model. The profit incentive is what drives the Firefox developers to make it a better product. Sure it’s Free Software, but it’s commercial Free Software.

Contrast this with Internet Explorer, which is basically just another cost to Microsoft. It’s a freebie thrown in to make Windows look more attractive, nothing more. Hence there is no incentive to make an effort to turn it into an outstanding product that customers will want to use. So it remains an also-ran, and an expensive drain on Microsoft’s coffers.

Richard Corsale (profile) says:

Re: Competition Requires A Market

mmmm not exactly, It’s an insurance policy that lets them dictate the evolution of web applications. It protects their other monopolies, because they don’t have to worry about incredible web apps, comming out of no where and becoming the OS. That’s precisely the reason they fight so hard to get things like Canvas out of the HTML 5 spec.. MS actively throttles web browser innovation with a monopoly of a different sort… though, that’s changed in the last few years, they no longer have total control, but still simi-total

bassmadrigal (profile) says:

Admit??

I don’t ever remember seeing something that firefox execs put out saying that competition doesn’t drive innovation. They didn’t even mention it in the article. I think with Mozilla’s background anyone saying that it doesn’t is ridiculous.

I think they have understood it from the get go. They started out by taking features that Opera had implemented before.

You make it seem like they were caught with their hand in the cookie jar. I think that it should read

“This point is made quite clear by Mike Beltzner”

The title could be changed to “Firefox Guys Agree That Competition Is What Drives Innovation”

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