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H.264 vs. Theora — Fightin' Words About Patentability 421

Posted by timothy
from the ascii-art-will-save-us dept.
An anonymous reader writes "Thom Holwerda from OS News has penned a rebuttal to claims from Daring Fireball's John Gruber that Theora is a greater patent risk than H.264. Holwerda writes, 'And so the H264/Theora debate concerning HTML5 video continues. The most recent entry into the discussion comes from John Gruber, who argues that Theora is more in danger of patent litigation than H264. He's wrong, and here's why.'"
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H.264 vs. Theora — Fightin' Words About Patentability

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  • Patent risks (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Elektroschock (659467) on Saturday March 27, 2010 @08:31PM (#31643860)

    If you want to get rid off patent risks abolish software patenting [stopsoftwarepatents.eu] of technical standards, embrace open standards.

  • by YesIAmAScript (886271) on Saturday March 27, 2010 @08:45PM (#31643942)

    In the first part, he takes Gruber's working (submarine patents) too literally. Gruber didn't mean literally patents that are applied for earlier but not granted yet. Gruber misspoke himself. Instead, he means companies who have patents that are already granted and they later will decide applies to new situation and then sue. If Theora becomes successful, it will meet with plenty of these, just as any other software success does now.

    In the second part, oddly, given that he rails against strawmen, the argument creates a strawman.

    The quoted response veers rapidly from addressing facts (whether Theora is within patent guidelines) to making a prediction 'I predict that MPEG LA may counter that they know groups have been pressured into licensing patents in order to use Theora.' Then it shoots down the prediction and thus claims to counter the argument. But that prediction is just a prediction, it isn't the issue at hand. And countering prediction you made up yourself doesn't necessary counter the actual argument which is that H.264 has a patent defense pool and Theora doesn't.

  • Thom is a jackass. (Score:3, Insightful)

    by carlhaagen (1021273) on Saturday March 27, 2010 @08:50PM (#31643966)
    There. I said it. Why? Because he counters Gruber's arguments with identical retorts, completely failing to see beyond his own nose, failing to realize and admit that all he is doing is just pulling his end of the rope in this tug of war, instead of coming up with anything worthwhile to consider in the choice of h.264 v theora.
  • I love Free Software. I really do. I normally piss-off people with my fairly hard-line GNU/RMS attitude towards software. In most cases, I will drop features so I can run the Free version of something, and all of my code is GPL3.

    But in this case, the so-called Free solution is the wrong choice to make. H.264 has won, and it won years ago. Now, an argument can be made that making a stand is important. But in this case, there is a pragmatic and strategic reason not to: taking a moral stand with Theora will damage other things, namely HTML5 and potentially Firefox itself.

    PNG won out in the end over GIF, mostly, because it had better features. But what enabled that win was that they could both be used at the same time. If early Mozilla branches simply removed GIF support, the browser would have been dead in the water. Nobody would use it, because the images people already have were in GIF format. Only because both formats were supported could Mozilla be even considered by most people.

    Today, people have data in H.264 format. A lot of data. A long list of hardware devices are made that support it directly. This data is not going to vanish, and people will want to play it. Firefox can choose to support that, or they can choose to become less relevant over time. Chrome is getting surprisingly strong uptake, and IE (ack) is getting much less offensive as time goes on. (aside: this competition is pretty awesome - browsers were starting to stagnate for a few years, and the rush for new features has been revived)

    Playing people's data and being compatible with most modern and future hardware is the pragmatic reason to support H.264; the strategic reason is that the moral stand is not about video codecs! It's about removing Flash and related proprietary solutions. Playing the SAME video stream (a .mp4 in H.264 format) in flash or the <video> tag is neutral as far as codecs go, but it opens up the idea of a Free player.

    The battle over codes needs to be left for another day.

    As for how to actually implement it, Mozilla et al needs to take a cue from how distros handle MP3 and other patented codecs - foreign "non-free" repositories. The details on how you do that are highly flexible. Mozilla seems to like over-engineering things, so I'm sure they can come up with a Clever Codec Plugin Scheme to automate this, as long as the actual codec is 1) a separate project, and 2) developed outside the org.

    Please - I love firefox, and this video issue is the one issue that could break them in the long-run. People like their YouTube.

  • Nope. (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday March 27, 2010 @08:53PM (#31643978)

    So this person thinks just because it, like any other technology, has the capacity to be sued by patent trolls makes it worse?

    Look, it's plain and simple: web technologies should be open and free. H.264 is not, despite all claims of "people can use it" and "well, it's better". That means nothing. Ogg Theora is open and free, H.264 is not. End of discussion, period.

    Anyone that disagrees either does not understand the importance of using open and free technologies to power the Internet (imagine what would happen if HTML was patent-encumbered as H.264 is!) or a simple troll that has a motivation for him and/or his company to control the web.

    This is a simple, solved issue, but the problem is that the misinformed and the greedy people are dragging it out. End this, make a stand, Ogg Vorbis or you don't get to play. Period.

    AC because mods on /. are largely the people I describe, and I don't want these people to drag my karma down just because they don't like the truth.

  • by carlhaagen (1021273) on Saturday March 27, 2010 @08:53PM (#31643980)
    MPEG-LA never said they would go after END USERS. They CAN'T go after end users - there is no practical possibility in this. Really, wake up to reality. License fees connected to MPEG-4 technology, all of its levels, are always entirely free for END USERS who are just consuming video or audio built on said tech. Nothing else has ever been said, nothing else will ever be possible. Don't confuse end user's consuming commercial material of MPEG-4 format as being subject to licenses - the ones SELLING said material are the ones subject to the license.
  • addendum (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Endymion (12816) <slashdot DOT org AT thoughtnoise DOT net> on Saturday March 27, 2010 @08:55PM (#31643988) Homepage Journal

    None of what I just said should be taken as a reason to not use Theora in addition to H.264. Push the Free solution, of course, but in parallel like what happened with PNG.

  • A moral win? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by KingSkippus (799657) on Saturday March 27, 2010 @09:20PM (#31644126) Homepage Journal

    And what Mozilla and the Theora-or-nothing crowd are missing is that even staying with Evil H.264, the video-tag/HTML5 is still a huge moral win over Evil Proprietary Flash.

    I'm sorry, but I just plain don't see it that way. It is simply substituting one proprietary format with another. In fact, using the "technically better is better, period" argument of the poster above you, because Flash includes more features than simple video, we should be striving against having a video tag and just continue using Flash.

    The GIF argument just isn't applicable. When everyone standardized on GIF, there really wasn't a viable alternative that worked nearly as well. There is a viable alternative to H.264. Also, keep in mind that when GIF became a de facto standard, the legal environment surrounding patents was much different. It was a time when there was question over whether a compression algorithm could even be patented, and the chance that anyone would actually sue over it was virtually nil. Now, the sue 'em all strategy is actually a lucrative business model.

    Come to think of it, didn't we go through many of these same arguments around 10 years after GIF became the de facto standard? Wasn't the questionability of the patent-encumbering of it a primary driver behind the development of the free PNG format? Didn't it take around like two friggin' decades for PNG to be as widely supported because we didn't really know better in making GIF the de facto format?

    Don't you agree it's pretty damned stupid to repeat that exact mistake yet again under the whole "fool me once, fool me twice" tenet?

  • Re:Patent risks (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Sir_Lewk (967686) <sirlewk@nOSpAm.gmail.com> on Saturday March 27, 2010 @09:23PM (#31644134)

    You keep on bring this up. The answer is, and always will be, because software is math [wikipedia.org]. Under US patent law math is not supposed to be patentable.

    You might not agree with this, but that is in fact why most of us argue that software should not be patentable. I suspect you confuse comprehension with agreement.

  • Except for that "only runs on a single OS" problem.

  • Re:First Post (Score:5, Insightful)

    by MrNaz (730548) on Saturday March 27, 2010 @09:35PM (#31644208) Homepage

    Why on Earth does HTML5 need to even specify the codec? I mean the tag doesn't specify an image format, why should not just have a src= attribute and any video supported by the system will play in it. That way it'd be the same as the change from GIF to PNG all those years ago, where those who want to use GIF could, and those who needed / wanted the free option (which was also superior) could use it without killing support for the other.

    I don't see why this is an either / or issue.

  • Re:A moral win? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Endymion (12816) <slashdot DOT org AT thoughtnoise DOT net> on Saturday March 27, 2010 @09:36PM (#31644218) Homepage Journal

    You act like H.264 and Theora are both new, and therefore one equal footing, and so there is a choice.

    There isn't. MPEG video is already entrenched. It won so long ago, that hardware manufacturers are now assuming H.264 in most every device. Your "choice" is that we should somehow make the entire hardware and software industry magically switch away from the last few years of work they did, all the current and upcoming products they are releasing, etc.

    Yes, I wish this wasn't the case, and I wish that a patent-free format was used instead. But wishing for things that fly in the face of reality is the attitude of religious nuts, not engineers.

    My argument is that any patents in any of these formats, and all technical features, are 100% irrelevant. Normal people don't care. What they do care about is if they go to the local electronics Big-Box retailer and buy a camera, that they can post the video on the net. And that video will be in H.264 format. They care about watching youtube/etc. Which is H.26{3,4} format.

    If a moral stand is desired, which it should be, it should be done by:
        1) Promoting the proper solution, patent-free, as an alternative
        2) Dodging the problem so you don't drive people away from your cause. ("make the codec separate from the browser")
        3) Use H.264 anyway, and accept the patent lawsuits as a proper form of Civil Disobedience, and get patent law changed.

    The path Mozilla is taking is to going to cause normal users to say one thing and only one thing:
        "Hmm. I browse to $cool_new_video_site and it doesn't work. It does work in IE and Chrome. Firefox must be broken, so I'll use IE instead."

    How is driving people away a win? The scope here is greater than a video codec.

  • Re:First Post (Score:3, Insightful)

    by OrangeTide (124937) on Saturday March 27, 2010 @09:42PM (#31644250) Homepage Journal

    so your suggestion is that all devices need all codec to be practical? Which is the current situation. Right now you just make H.264 videos to reach the widest possible audience, but it's still not 100% of HTML5 enabled browsers. If there was one good codec that a website creator can count on being supported, it makes things like HTML5 very useful. Without it you might as well use Flash because that is more widely supported than H.264 these days.

  • by Vellmont (569020) on Saturday March 27, 2010 @09:43PM (#31644258)

    I see a lot of statements in your post, but not a lot of argument or information.

    Why is this about H.264 OR Theora? Why isn't it about H.264 AND Theora? Like PNG vs Gif, why do we have to pick one or the other?

    You seem to think H.264 having "won" is a forgone conclusion. Your only arguments seems to be hardware support, and the "lots of data" point. How is that a sustainable situation? Hardware support is nice and all, but every other format the hardware support has become largely irrelevant as processors have gotten faster.

    No, the big issue here is the stupid software patents. Arguing about which one is less likely to anger the patent trolls misses the point. When patent trolls are holding everyone hostage don't start arguing about which hostage is least likely to be taken out and shot first.

  • Yes, I am well familiar with the mess that makes up the technical features of "H.264", or more precisely, "MPEG 4, Part 10 AVC", the Part 2 variants ("XVID").

    None of these technical features matter, as most people won't have any idea what you mean. What does matter is that people are currently buying cameras that capture video in Baseline profile, that magically works on a surprisingly number of devices. What matters is that many current devices, and most future devices support High Profile in hardware.

    At no point does Theora enter into it. No devices make it, and no* devices play it (in hardware).

    [*] Almost none. Exception are minimal and not significant enough to matter.

  • by Qubit (100461) on Saturday March 27, 2010 @10:16PM (#31644420) Homepage Journal

    According to the article here [streamingmedia.com], MPEG LA CEO Larry Horn said this (emphasis mine):

    In addition, no one in the market should be under the misimpression that other codecs such as Theora are patent-free. Virtually all codecs are based on patented technology, and many of the essential patents may be the same as those that are essential to AVC/H.264. Therefore, users should be aware that a license and payment of applicable royalties is likely required to use these technologies developed by others, too.

    When asked directly about the MPEG patent holders:

    Ozer: It sounds like you are saying that some of your patent holders own patents that are used in Ogg. Is that correct?

    Horn: We believe that there are patent holders who do.

    Okay, Horn: Who are the patent holders and what the patent numbers?

    Ozer: It sounds like you’ll be coming out and basically saying that to use Ogg, you need to license it from MPEG LA. Is that correct?

    Horn: That is not what we said. We said no one in the market should be under the misimpression that other codecs such as Theora are patent-free.

    Ummmm... You're just spreading FUD and trying to be coy about it. But you just look like a smarmy used-car salesman. I call bullshit.

    I have a good deal of respect for people like Monty who get this kind of shit thrown at them day-in and day-out from whatever weak-willed, money-over-morals, cardboard-cutout figurehead the MPEG-LA props up today to go and do their dirty work.

    Mr. Horn, your arguments are hollow and your acts of fear-mongering are unbecoming of any man. I'm not sure I'd go so far as to call your actions reprehensible had you not graduated from Yale and then gone on to get a J.D. from Columbia. I mean, honestly, is the quantity of cash they're throwing at you so large that you can pile it on top of your morals like steel weights in a flower press, keeping your inner sense of honor pressed down so it doesn't jump up and kick your ass for being a manipulative and deceitful businessman?

    Show us the patents or shut up.

  • Re:Patent risks (Score:2, Insightful)

    by EvanED (569694) <evaned.gmail@com> on Saturday March 27, 2010 @10:40PM (#31644534)

    Unfortunately you're dealing with someone who is quite clearly not a computer scientist or mathematician.

    Huh?

    I consider myself a computer scientist (and the fact that I have a BS in both math and comp sci and am halfwayish through a CS PhD program would seem to support that assertion), and I firmly believe that a sufficiently clever algorithm is as much an invention as a sufficiently clever physical invention.

    Saying "algorithms are just math" is about as convincing to me as saying "your prototype is just matter."

  • Re:Patent risks (Score:2, Insightful)

    by EvanED (569694) <evaned.gmail@com> on Saturday March 27, 2010 @10:43PM (#31644544)

    BTW, that's not to say that I support the current status quo regarding software patents. I think software patents should undergo some reform to make them both more restrictive (Amazon one-click? really?) and probably shorter duration. That said, I definitely think something like the RSA algorithm was as worthy of a patent as most anything else out there.

  • Re:Nope. (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday March 27, 2010 @11:02PM (#31644638)

    YouTube and Vimeo are already going with h.264.

    If Google was only interested in going with H.264, then they wouldn't have spent a hundred million dollars on On2 Technologies.

    Other browsers are going with h.264.

    No they aren't. Firefox has gone with Theora. Opera has gone with Theora. Chrome also supports Theora. Safari goes with the QuickTime framework and will play whatever QuickTime plays. Similarly, IE9 will go with the Media Foundation framework and will play whatever it plays. Right now you can reach 100% of HTML5 browsers using Theora and that will remain true once IE9 is released.

    In the end, this isn't about Theora versus H.264. It's about open video versus closed video. If Google releases VP8 as an open codec with Vorbis for audio, everyone will follow pretty quickly.

  • Re:First Post (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday March 27, 2010 @11:07PM (#31644652)

    No, he's not suggesting that all devices support all codecs. He's quite rightly suggesting that HTML5 should support all codecs. Why on earth should it be stuck with one? That makes no sense whatsoever. It would make HTML5 very limited and that is not something that W3C or any other standards body should ever even think of doing. The 'img' tag doesn't support one type of image format, nor does the 'object' or 'embed' tag support only one form of content for their usage.

    By the way, Flash is NOT a video codec, nor a video standard. Flash video *IS* H.264 (MPEG-4) video.

  • Re:Patent risks (Score:3, Insightful)

    by EvanED (569694) <evaned.gmail@com> on Saturday March 27, 2010 @11:42PM (#31644830)

    You do the realize that at the heart of the RSA algorithm (and most if not all cyptography algorthims for that matter) is a series of mathematical equations...

    You could say the same thing about physical inventions, and it would only be a bit more far-fetched IMO. "At the heart of an internal combustion engine is just the physical principle that a fuel-air mixture burning will create an increase in volume." The presumably patentable thing in the case of the internal combustion engine is the clever idea that you can harness that increase in volume to turn linear motion into rotational motion, and use that to, for instance, move a car forward. Similarly, there may "just" be some number theory behind the RSA algorithm, but the thing I think should be patentable in its case is the clever idea that you can harness those equations in order to do public-key cryptography.

    (I don't actually know whether the internal combustion engine was patented, or what parts of it were, etc.; but you get the idea.)

    Therefore under US law it should not be patentable, yet for some reason because it relates to computing it is was granted a patent.

    I can't speak to what should or shouldn't be patentable under current law; I'm just saying that I think a system that allows at least some aspects of software to be patented makes perfect sense.

  • by dangitman (862676) on Sunday March 28, 2010 @12:24AM (#31645062)

    Except for that "only runs on a single OS" problem.

    And which platform does the vast majority of Firefox installations run on, again? Remember, Mac OS X and Linux already have other browsers that support H.264 (Chrome and Safari). This leaves Firefox as the odd one out.

    When video hosting sites switch to H.264 and don't offer a Theora fallback, what do you think people will do? Stop using those video sites, or switch to IE9, Chrome or Safari?

  • Re:First Post (Score:5, Insightful)

    by gig (78408) on Sunday March 28, 2010 @01:34AM (#31645366)

    > I don't see why this is an either / or issue.

    In one word: standardization.

    For the same reason we standardize markup around W3C HTML5, we standardize video around MPEG-4 H.264. We need to be able to make just one Web app and have it work on any browser from any manufacturer. We need to be able to make just one video and have it work in any video player from any manufacturer. If we don't have that, then consumers cannot choose their own preferred browser, or preferred media player. They get stuck using IE6 or Windows Media Player solely to decode nonstandard Web apps and video. It's not acceptable.

    Modern consumer electronics devices have one video codec burned into hardware, and that is MPEG-4 H.264. This is almost 10 years old now. Same as DVD players all had MPEG-2. That's the reason the H.264 codec exists. If you want to publish a video that will play on iPod and other media players, iPhone and other smartphones, various set-top boxes, both FlashPlayer and QuickTime Player, both YouTube and iTunes, that is H.264. If you want to play video that was made with Flip camcorders, or Kodak camcorders, or Canon cameras, or Nikon cameras, or Panasonic cameras, or iPod/iPhone, that is H.264.

    A key thing to understand is that MPEG-4 is not owned by any one company. The patents are not held by any one company. They are put into a pool and licensed equally to all comers. This puts all the consumer electronics manufacturers on equal footing. Flip is not going to cease to exist one day because a submarine patent takes all their devices off the market. The entire MPEG-4 group would address the submarine patent, all the manufacturers are protected from litigation in this way. That's just not true with Ogg.

    On a Mac/PC, if you are somewhat technical, you can load all kinds of software codecs, most of which are made for authoring or some other special purpose, not made for consumer playback. Same as you can happily make Web apps for IE6 if your company uses IE6. But if you want to share Web apps with the world, you use HTML5. If you want to publish video for the world, you use H.264.

    Also, you have to understand that video authoring tools all work with H.264 for many years now, and not with nonstandard formats. Where you see Ogg video, or Windows Media, or Real Media, or any other nonstandard media, they were very likely created from H.264.

    This all has nothing to do with HTML5. As I said, H.264 is almost 10 years old and both YouTube and iTunes and both FlashPlayer and QuickTime Player play it. That *is* Web video. H.264 plays in Firefox today, and will play there tomorrow. HTML5 standardizes *markup* not video. So browsers now have to become video players. If Firefox doesn't want to do that, then they will see their users make an exodus for Chrome or Safari. There isn't any way to turn back time to when Ogg was current technology and rewrite history and re-encode the incredible amount of video that is stored in H.264.

    If you imagine that Mozilla was saying "we can't support UTF-8" that is the same as them not supporting H.264. The UTF-8 text is already out there, and there's no other technology to replace it, and that is the same with H.264 video. A Web browser that can't play YouTube is not a Web browser.

  • Re:First Post (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Nikker (749551) on Sunday March 28, 2010 @03:56AM (#31645856)
    With todays servers if someone posts a video to my site I can just transcode it to any format I wish. If I want I can bite the bullet and pay for one license to transcode and no one knows the difference. When it comes down to it the end user just wants to see a slide show at around 30 fps, no special magic no 3D rendering just what they shot on their camcorder or their crappy cell phone camera. So why all this fuss? HTML5 is just a tag not much more and the end user sure as hell doesn't care, they just want to click and see a video. So saying by any justification one method is "better" than another is just plain stupid. Hell at the end of the day I could just buy one license for H264 and host on Amazon S3 offering for a small charge instant transcoding of all material to DIVX,Theora or GIF if I wanted to and tell everyone else to go fuck themselves.
  • Re:Patent risks (Score:2, Insightful)

    by jesset77 (759149) on Sunday March 28, 2010 @04:32AM (#31645978)

    If there is sufficient motivation to create open source patent free licenses then they'll happen regardless if there are patented competitors.

    This is a case where the FOSS community wants all of the benefits of patented software which is in this case technically superior without having to pay for it.

    I'm sorry, the FOSS community wants what now? Most of the FOSS community backs Theora. Toe to toe, H.264's superiority of Theora is marginal. It's main claim to fame is simple Ubiquity. Most embedded devices choose to hardware accelerate H.264 instead of Theora, with the net effect that I (as a video producer and distributer) will likely be forced to pay royalties at some unspecified time in the future per consumer of my work in order to take advantage of said short-sighted hardware support decisions.

    Next will you argue that Internet Explorer is "superior" to Safari simply because more computers have it installed at present, or because it appears faster when you click the little "e" due to components automatically preloading with Windows?

  • Re:Patent risks (Score:3, Insightful)

    by nog_lorp (896553) on Sunday March 28, 2010 @05:38AM (#31646148)

    Erm. Software is, fundamentally, a collection of data inputs and NAND logic that is stored physically somewhere. The fact is, it is a mathematical logic construct that is being covered under a software patent. The data that represents the software is NOT patentable, it is copyrightable.

    The abstract design of a physical application has many, many more variables than the abstract design of a mathematical construct, and exclusivity of a physical design rarely prohibits all other innovators from making progress without it.

  • Re:First Post (Score:3, Insightful)

    by TheRaven64 (641858) on Sunday March 28, 2010 @06:20AM (#31646232) Journal

    The problem with this idea is twofold. First, that mobile devices do the decoding in hardware, so you'd have to expose functions like 'send this H.264 stream to the ASIC,' which is not very useful in the general case. The second problem is what exactly to put in the API. You mention DCT, but Dirac uses DWTs, so a Dirac implementation would need to do the wavelet operations entirely in bytecode. Alternatively, you could need to force every browser to implement DWT, even if they never played back Dirac content.

    Given the security holes in browsers' JavaScript sandboxing over the past few years, I'm also not completely convinced that this is more secure than just installing a CODEC once for each format that you want to play.

  • Re:First Post (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Jesus_666 (702802) on Sunday March 28, 2010 @06:21AM (#31646238)
    Why would they want to? Internet Explorer and Safari play H.264 just fine so where's the incentive for Microsoft and Apple? Google already has ffmpeg built in and most likely won't want to absorb another codec (interface).

    That leaves us with Mozilla and Opera. Even if they agree on an ABI that hardly makes for an industry-wide standard.

    Plus, Opera's method of just leveraging codecs the system has does the same without duplicationg data and without requiring the user to figure out which website to trust when downloading codecs.

    In fact, that's the biggest problem with your post: It assumes that either every website out there is honest and good or that every user is competent in the field of browser plugin threat analysis. Most users aren't going to know whether it's good or bad to install the h.265 codec girlswithbigtits.cn is offering them.

    There are reasons why the Netscape plugin architectore hasn't already been used to deal with this. The fact that trusting random websites to install plugins in my browser (plugins that directly talk to my GPU no less) is a bad idea is one of them.
  • Re:Patent risks (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Darren Winsper (136155) on Sunday March 28, 2010 @08:24AM (#31646582) Homepage

    No. Algorithms are the maths. An implementation of the algorithm is the application. However, we already have a system for protecting implementations of algorithms, we call it copyright.

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