Two giant video web sites are now running HTML5 video betas. This means that you can use their sites without having Flash active. Vimeo’s setup is especially impressive in that it very closely mimics the Flash experience.

If you don’t know what HTML5 video is, its an HTML video tag that will play video in the browser without requiring a Flash plugin. More importantly, the browser can interact with the video using JavaScript to display video overlays, control “scrubbing” of the video, etc. Pretty much any interaction you can do with the Flash plugin can be done with HTML5 video.

The YouTube beta needs to be activated by going to http://www.youtube.com/html5.

The Vimeo beta needs to be activated by clicking on an easy-to-miss link at the bottom right of each video’s description.

Both betas remain active once you select them. Why would you use the HTML5 version? Because Flash is often a vector for security problems and because Flash video decoding uses a large percentage of CPU. A small side bonus is that video scrubbing is smoother with the HTML5 version.

But most of you won’t be able to use the betas. Because both betas require a browser that supports the HTML5 video tag, but, in addition, also supports the H.264 video codec.

There are three shipping browsers that support the HTML5 video tag: Firefox, Safari and Chrome. But only Safari and Chrome support the H.264 video codec. H.264 must be licensed before it can be legally used. And that license is expensive. And that license cannot be transferred with source code. So, downloadable binaries can be licensed and can include H.264 but open source programs that are compiled by others can’t be. That means that Chromium, the open source version of Chrome, can’t display H.264 video.

Mozilla, the maker of Firefox, could probably afford the H.264 license, but they refuse to. First, a high percentage of Firefox consumers use the source code from Mozilla, not the binaries. Virtually every Linux distribution works this way. Secondly, Mozilla, as an open source company, feels that a licensed codec like H.264 is unacceptable.

So Firefox (and Chrome) also support the open source video codec Ogg Theora. But Apple doesn’t. And Google won’t encode video in Ogg Theora for YouTube. The first issue is video quality and bit rate. H.264 has slightly better video quality at an equivalent bit rate to Ogg Theora. For Ogg Theora to match H.264 video quality the bit rate has to be increased. And for a web site like YouTube, that means all consumers have to have better Internet connections and Google has to pay a bigger bandwidth bill. The second issue is hardware support. There are hardware chipsets available (and in iPhones today) that decode H.264. That means that the phone CPUs (which aren’t that powerful) aren’t taxed with decoding video, and that power usage when displaying video is greatly reduced. The last issue is patents. Apple isn’t satisfied that Ogg Theora doesn’t violate patents that exist around video decoding and they’re unwilling to be the target of a law suit that goes after Apple’s deep pockets. Google, seemingly, doesn’t care.

So, the biggest single browser, Internet Explorer, doesn’t support the HTML5 video tag. The second biggest browser, Firefox, supports the tag but only displays Ogg Theora videos. The third biggest browser, Safari, supports H.264 but not Ogg Theora. And the fourth biggest browser, Chrome, supports both H.264 and Ogg Theora. And the big video sites refuse to support Ogg Theora.

It’s a mess.

This impasse will only be resolved when someone buys H.264 outright and releases it to the public or when Ogg Theora is improved, cleared of patent issues and gains hardware support. Neither events seems likely anytime soon.

Update: And now Internet Explorer 9 will support H.264. Leaving Firefox as the odd man out. This position is untenable for Firefox. Their principles will probably turn out to be flexible enough to license H.264 for their binary downloads.