A Closer Look at the Microsoft h.264 Extension for Chrome

Today I took a closer look at how the “Windows Media Player HTML5 Extension for Chrome” works. To recap for a moment, Google announced that they are revoking native h.264 playback for the HTML5 <video/> tag in Chrome. A huge kerfuffle ensued. Yesterday, Microsoft announced that they were providing an extension to Chrome that provides h.264 support for the <video/> tag in Chrome on Windows 7.

I downloaded the CRX file and unzipped it. This is the contents:

PS> ls | select Length, Name | ft -AutoSize

Length Name
------ ----
  6540 contentscript.js
   678 manifest.json
163256 np-mswmp.dll
 59413 wmp eula.rtf
  3489 wmp releasenotes.txt
 28177 wmp128.png
   569 wmp16.png
  2233 wmp48.png

The np-mswmp.dll file looked familiar. And that is because it is the NSAPI plugin for Windows Media Player for Firefox.

ns-wmp

The remaining interesting file in the CRX is contentscript.js. In a nutshell, what this script does is look for <video/> elements that are referencing h.264 or WMV content and dynamically replace them with <object type=”application/x-ms-wmp” /> element referencing the same content.

Interesting Side-Effect

The Windows Media NSAPI plugin is installed into Chrome along with this extension which means any pages which explicitly embed the Windows Media Player will work.

wmpChrome

Also, this extension enables support for WindowsMedia Video content in <video/> elements.

var supportedMimeTypes = ['video/mp4', 'video/x-ms-wmv'];
var supportedVideoExtensions = ['.mp4', '.wmv', '.mp4v', '.m4v'];

Windows 7 Not Really Required

The Windows Media NSAPI plugin was released by the Port 25 group at Microsoft in April 2007. It doesn’t rely upon Windows 7 to work. The issue is just that Windows 7 is the first version of windows to ship with an h.264 codec for Windows Media Player. The extension should work on Windows XP and Vista if you have an h.264 codec for Windows Media, such as from the K-Lite codec pack.

Pointing the Way for Alternate Cross-Platform Implementations

This general approach also points the way for a 3rd party that has an NSAPI plugin that supports h.264 to extend Chrome (and Firefox) to support h.264 and whatever else the video player can support in the <video/> element. In particular it should be straightforward to create an extension that uses the VLC NSAPI plugin to extend the <video/> tag codec to support h.264 as well as DivX, QuickTime and MPEG-2.

Microsoft Puts h.264 Back into Chrome

Is I suspected they would, Microsoft has released an h.264 codec extension for Google Chrome to support h.264 in the <video /> tag. They provide the same mechanism for Firefox.

http://www.interoperabilitybridges.com/wmp-extension-for-chrome

This Extension is based on a Chrome Extension that parses HTML5 pages and replaces Video tags with a call to the Windows Media Player plug-in so that the content can be played in the browser. The Extension replaces video tags only if the video formats specified in the tag are among those supported by Windows Media Player. Tags that contain other video formats are not touched.

The Extension also checks if the browser version already supports MP4 (H.264) video codec, if so the extension is not used.

 

http://blogs.msdn.com/b/ie/archive/2011/02/02/html5-and-web-video-questions-for-the-industry-from-the-community.aspx

Any browser running on Windows can play H.264 video via the built-in Windows APIs that support the format. Our point of view here is that Windows customers should be able to play mainstream video on the Web.

 

Interesting.

Shocking: Google Removing h.264 Support from Chrome

To that end, we are changing Chrome’s HTML5 <video> support to make it consistent with the codecs already supported by the open Chromium project. Specifically, we are supporting the WebM (VP8) and Theora video codecs, and will consider adding support for other high-quality open codecs in the future. Though H.264 plays an important role in video, as our goal is to enable open innovation, support for the codec will be removed and our resources directed towards completely open codec technologies.

via The Chromium Blog

I’m very, very sad to see this announcement. h.264 is the web video standard while WebM is a new Google codec that nobody uses and nobody uses Theora. We really don’t need video codec fragmentation in HTML5. The likely result of that will just be standardization on Flash video. Do we get to re-hash the video format wars of the 1990s in the 2010s?

This sucks and basically shows that HTML5 is not standardized and not ready for prime time. Not cool at all.

This is an opportunity for Microsoft to look like a hero and fix this for Google like they did for Mozilla.

The Sad History of the Microsoft POSIX Subsystem

When Windows NT was first being developed, one of the goals was to make the kernel separate from the programming interface. NT was originally intended to be the successor to OS/2 but Microsoft also wanted to include compatibility to run Windows 3.x applications and to meet 1980s era DoD Orange Book and FIPS specifications to sell to the defense market.  As a result, Windows NT was developed as a multiuser platform with sophisticated discretionary access controls capabilities and it was implemented as a hybrid microkernel 3 userland environments:

  • Windows (Win32)
  • OS/2
  • POSIX

Microsoft had a falling out with IBM over Win32 and the NT project split from OS/2. The team focus shifted to Win32 so much that the Client-Server Runtime Subsystem (CSRSS) that hosts the Win32 API became mandatory and OS/2 and POSIX subsystems were never really completed but they were shipped with the first five versions of Windows NT through Windows 2000. The OS/2 subsystem could only run OS/2 1.0 command-line programs and had no presentation manager support. The POSIX subsystem supported POSIX.1 spec but provided no shells or UNIX-like environment of any kind. With the success of Win32 in the form of Windows 95, the development of the OS/2 and POSIX subsystems ceased. They  were entirely dead and gone from Windows XP and Windows Server 2003.

Meanwhile, around 1996,  Softway Systems developed a UNIX-to-Windows NT porting system called OpenNT. OpenNT was built on the NT POSIX subsystem but fleshed it out into a usable UNIX environment. This was at a time when UNIX systems where hugely expensive. Softway used OpenNT to re-target a number of UNIX applications for US Federal agencies onto Windows NT. In 1998, OpenNT was re-named Interix. Softway Systems also eventually built a full replacement for the NT POSIX subsystem in order to implement system calls that the Microsoft POSIX subsystem didn’t support and to develop a richer libc, single-rooted view of the file system and a functional gcc.

Microsoft acquired Softway and the Interix platform in 1999. Initially Interix 2.2 was made available as a fairly expensive paid add-on to Windows NT 4 and Windows 2000. Later it was incorporated as a component of Services for UNIX 3.0 and 3.5 (SFU) and SFU was made free-of-charge. When Interix became free, Microsoft removed the X11 server component that was previously bundled with Interix because in the wake of U.S. vs Microsoft, they did not want to defend law suits from the entrenched and expensive PC X Server industry but the X11 client libraries remained.

SFU/Interix 3.0 was released in early 2002 followed up with SFU 3.5 less than two years later and cool stuff got implemented like fast pthreads, fork(), setuid, ptys, deaemons with RC scripts including inetd and sendmail among other things. InteropSystems ported OpenSSH and developed a high-performance port of Apache using pthreads and other proof-of-concept ports like GTK and GIMP among many other things. Hotmail even ran on Interix. And enterprising people did cool things like a Linux ELF binary loader on top of Interix.

I got into this stuff and built and donated ports to the SFU/SUA community, including cadaver, ClamAV, GnuMP, libtool, NcFTP, neon, rxvt and gnu whois. My company sponsored the port of OpenSSH to Interix 6.0 for Vista SUA (because it broke backwards compatibility with Interix 3.5 binaries). We ran Interix on all of our workstations and servers. We used it for management, remote access and to interop with clients who used Solaris, Linux and OS X on various projects.

Slowly Going Off the Rails

With Windows Server 2003 R2 (and only R2), Interix became a core operating system component, rebranded as “Subsystem for UNIX Applications” (SUA). Around this time, the core development team was reformed in India rather than Redmond and some of the key Softway developers moved on to other projects like Monad (PowerShell) or left Microsoft. Interix for Windows Server 2003 R2 (aka Interix 5.2) was broken. It shipped with corrupt libraries and a number of new but flawed APIs and broke some previously stable APIs like select(). Also, related to the inclusion of Interix as an OS component, SP2 for Windows Server 2003 clobbers Interix 3.5 installations.

Things have been downhill from there. It’s not just that obvious things didn’t get implemented like a fully-functional poll() or updating binutils and gcc to something reasonably modern. The software suffered from severe bitrot.

One of the consequences of including SUA as an OS component has been that a bifurcation of the “subsystem” from the “tools”. The subsystem consists of just a few files: psxss.exe, psxss.dll, posix.exe and psxrun.exe. This implements the runtime and a terminal environment but nothing else, not even libc. In order to get shells, PTYs and usable programs, you have to install the “Utilities and SDK for UNIX-based Applications”  (aka tools) which is sizable download. Apparently Microsoft has concern about bundling GPL code onto the actual Windows media.

OK. This is a little weird but not a big deal except that the development timeline of the tools is now completely out of whack with Windows releases. The tools for Vista were only available in beta when Vista went gold and the version for Windows Server 2008 and Vista SP1 was not available until about a month after Vista SP1/Win2k8 was released. When Windows 7 was released no tools were available at all in July 2009 when Windows 7 was released. They didn’t become available until 8 months later in March 2010 and contain no new features.

To top things off, while SFU 3.5 ran on all versions of NT 5.x, SUA only runs on Windows Server and the Enterpise and Ultimate client editions. SUA is not available on Vista Business or Home and Windows 7 Professional and Home editions.

Is Interix Dead?

For some reason Microsoft seems to be ambivalent about this technology. On the one hand they bring it into the core of the OS and make it a “premium” feature that only Enterprise and Ultimate customers get to use and on the other they pare back development to almost nothing.

Interix has been supported with support forms and a ports tree maintained by InteropSystems collectively known as SUA Community which operates with supplemental funding from Microsoft. The /Tools ports tree is the source for key packages not provided by Microsoft such as Bash, OpenSSH, BIND, cpio and a ton of libraries that Microsoft does not bundle.  Microsoft has been increasingly reluctant to fund the SUA Community and has survey users on a number of occasions. The latest survey was very pointed and culminated with Microsoft cutting off funding and shuttering the SUA Community site on July 6th, 2010 but a few days later it was back online. I’m not sure how or why.

I have no inside knowledge but my gut says that Interix has lost internal support at Microsoft. It is being kept on life support because of loud complaints from important customers but it is going nowhere. I will be surprised if there is a Subsystem for UNIX-based Applications in Windows 8. I think the ambivalence is ultimately about an API war. At some level, the strategerizers have decided it is better to not dignify UNIX API with support. I think the calculus is that people will still use Windows but it chokes off oxygen for UNIX-like systems if it takes a lot of extra work to write cross-platform code for Windows and UNIX—the premise being that you write for Windows first because that’s where the market is. Furthermore, in a lot of business cases what is needed is Linux support or Red Hat Linux version X support in order to run something. I think Microsoft realizes that it is hard for Interix to beat Linux which is why SUSE and Red Hat Linux can be virtualized under Hyper-V.

I also believe that Microsoft sees C/C++ APIs as “legacy”. I think they want to build an OS that is verifiably secure and more reliable by being based on fully managed code. The enormous library of software built for the Windows API is a huge legacy problem to manage in migrating to such a system. Layering POSIX/UNIX on top of that makes it worse.

Whatever the reason, it seems pretty clear that Interix is dying.

Visual Studio 2010 Professional Should be Free

Microsoft has created yet another SKU for Visual Studio 2010, Ultimate Edition.

This is out of hand.

  • Visual Studio Express editions Basic CMYK
  • Visual Studio Professional
  • Visual Studio Premium
  • Visual Studio Ultimate
  • Visual Studio Test Professional
  • Visual Studio Team Foundation Server
  • Visual Studio Lab Management

The express editions are free of charge but weirdly crippled:

  1. Rather than being features extending the base IDE, there are entirely separate Express IDEs for each language.
  2. The source control plugin API is missing
  3. Extremely limited refactoring (at a time when the refactorings in the full edition don’t compare well to Eclipse or Netbeans)
  4. No conditional breakpoints
  5. No remote debugging
  6. No thread debugging
  7. No support for compiling 64-bit native images
  8. No support for setup projects
  9. No support for solutions which contain projects written in different languages (because of item #1).
  10.   No MS Office development support.
  11.   No VSIX extensions (like this spell checker).

And apparently, you don’t have access to F# and IronPython languages with any Express edition. What?

Visual Studio Professional is the vanilla full-featured version of Visuals Studio 2010.

Visual Studio is really the mechanism by which developers add value to Microsoft’s platforms. It is used to build applications that people actually use. We are not living in the gay 90s anymore when compilers were generally very expensive and IDEs were new and a huge value-add. Now, every platform vendor I can think of except for Microsoft gives away the best development tools it can in order to draw developers to it.

Here are some examples:

  • Apple gives away XCode and all its developer tools and documentations to anyone that registers.
  • Eclipse is free and open source.
  • Netbeans is free and open source

Visual Studio Express editions do not have parity with the features of XCode, Netbeans and Eclipse. Visual Studio Professional is much closer.

But to get Visual Studio Professional, you have to be student or faculty at an institution participating in the Microsoft Academic Alliance program, an employee of a Microsoft Certified Partner or you or your employer have to buy an MSDN subscription every year. There are now 6 MSDN subscription SKUs.

  • MSDN Operating Systems
  • MSDN Embedded
  • Visual Studio Professional with MSDN
  • Visual Studio Test Professional with MSDN
  • Visuals Studio Premium with MSDN
  • Visual Studio Ultimate with MSDN

These range in price from $699 to $11,899 retail with the “Professional” version weighing in at $1,199 ($799 for a renewal). The Operating Systems one doesn’t even come with Visual Studio which makes no sense at all. Why offer developers a subscription to your operating systems without giving them the tools to develop applications on the operating systems?

This state of affairs is out of control.

I don’t have any issue with Microsoft selling value-adds over and above of Visual Studio Professional (e.g. Premium, Ultimate, Professional Tester, Team Server, etc.) to compete with IBM Rational and Perforce et al in the application lifecycle management and enterprise architecture modeling stuff and build management and testing.

But rather than trying to squeeze 800 bucks a year out of developers, Microsoft should discard the Express editions of Visual Studio and make Visual Studio 2010 Professional available at no cost to anyone with a valid copy of Windows.

Otherwise, Microsoft is literally driving startups and young developers to other platforms which offer fully functional free tools from vendors like Apple, IBM, Oracle (Sun), Novell, Red Hat and Canonical.

And when I say free I don’t mean crippled or ad supported. In order to keep the Windows platform relevant, Microsoft needs to make credible modern tools available to anyone that might be interested. That means Visual Studio 2010 Professional should be a free download.

Seriously.

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