Wikipedia looks to enhance online video

Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia that anyone can edit, will soon enhance its video capability by offering Web users a new set of open-source tools for easier editing, remixing, uploading and viewing of video clips.

Because Wikipedia is owned by a nonprofit foundation and is extremely popular with Internet users, its choice of an open-source video format has opened a cultural and business schism between some of the most powerful players in the industry.

The controversy centers on the selection of the Ogg Theora video codec, rather than H.264, which is supported by major industry players like Google, Microsoft and Apple.

Wikipedia operates to the beat of a different drummer than its for-profit colleagues. It operates more like the educational wing of public television than a highly competitive Web services company. For years, Wikipedia has been working on improving video support for its users. Market forces do not drive its decisions.

Erik Moller, deputy director of the Wikimedia Foundation, said recently that his enterprise wants its actions to contribute to a healthy ecosystem for video on the Web. Today, that ecosystem is not so healthy — being controlled by a small number of major computer vendors.

A key reason behind the disagreement is control of content. Wikipedia wants it more open and free, with users having the ability to remix various media elements for easy uploading online. It’s a big supporter of the Creative Commons view toward intellectual property.

Major media companies, on the other hand, want tighter control over their content. Wikipedia’s position and video strategy on the Web doesn’t sit well with these content owners and the technology companies that cater to their desires.

For the first time, video made in the Ogg Theora format can be played back natively inside the latest version (3.5.1) of Firefox, and soon with the new Chrome and Opera browsers. However, it cannot be played with Microsoft’s Internet Explorer or Apple’s Safari. The open source community is unhappy with Apple about this.

Eventually, Wikipedia plans server-side transcoding technology for some of the most popular proprietary formats. This would minimize the inconvenience of uploading. Until then, video producers can render Ogg Theora files in Final Cut Pro and other editing programs by using various plug-ins. Once in the Ogg Theora format, these files can be uploaded to Wikipedia.

Wikipedia’s initial solution is for users to make the conversion on their personal computer with a Firefox plug-in. That solution is Firefogg, a Firefox-only browser plug-in that can transcode user videos to Ogg Theora on the user’s hardware.

Wikipedia’s selection of Ogg Theora puts further stress on the standards making for HTML 5 video. Unlike the H.264 codec, Ogg Theora allows for downloading, remixing and re-uploading of video with no licensing fees.

Also, H.264 has gained ground in recent months. Most current computing hardware has onboard H.264 decoding. Microsoft, Apple and Google all back H.264 with their browsers. Google’s Chrome, in fact, supports Ogg Theora and H.264, but the company has said Ogg’s video quality is not up to its standards. Google recently spent heavily to re-encode YouTube’s entire library of videos into H.264.

Moller noted that typical video today is locked in a black box and can’t be easily manipulated without expensive proprietary tools. Video on the Web isn’t as open, free and as reusable as text, images or Web pages, he said.

He advocates allowing Wikipedia users to edit, crop and remix video using any media assets they choose. Once finished, they then tag the video with audio. All of this would happen in a completely open standards environment. Wikipedia, he said, should set a standard for what an open ecosystem should look like, and create an example for other educational and nonprofit organizations as well.

Kaltura, an open source video company, is creating a set of collaborative editing tools for Wikipedia that will allow users to amend videos. Those tools will be available later this year.

Because bandwidth will become a major issue for the new video initiative, Wikimedia Foundation, Wikipedia’s owner, is seeking a CDN company to provide streaming video services at a deep discount or on a contributed basis. Currently, the video is hosted on Wikipedia servers, and there are performance issues.

Some media companies, including Al Jazeera, are already experimenting with uploading to Wikipedia. The Middle East television network has provided its coverage of last year’s conflict in Gaza. It was one of a few news organizations with crews in the war zone.