Google unveiled an open-source, royalty-free video format called WebM on Wednesday, lining up commitments from Mozilla and Opera to support the encoding technology in their browsers and pledging to support it on its YouTube site.
“The WebM project is dedicated to developing a high-quality, open-video format for the web that is freely available to everyone,” the WebM web page states. As expected, Google made the move in conjunction with its Google I/O conference on Wednesday.
It’s not yet clear how much success Google will have spreading WebM, but the company has big web ambitions, a powerful brand, heavy influence through the popularity of YouTube, and deep pockets to help handle any legal threats to the WebM project.
Google lined up some outside support. “The VP8 and WebM specifications as released on 19 May 2010, are final, and we encourage everyone to use them for developing applications. Google, Mozilla and Opera are all adding WebM support to their browsers and all videos that are 720p or larger uploaded to YouTube after May 19th will be encoded in WebM as part of its HTML5 experiment.”
The format is based on the VP8 technology that Google acquired from On2 Technologies in February. It also uses the Ogg Vorbis audio technology that also has its origins with On2.
The “codec” technology for encoding and decoding video competes with H.264, a format that Apple and Microsoft prefer but comes with steep licensing fees and restrictions that keep it out of open-source software. That includes Mozilla’s Firefox and Google’s Chromium, the open-source project underlying its Chrome browser.
Microsoft said on Wednesday it will “support” the open-source, royalty-free WebM technology — as long as Windows users install software on their own.
That’s not much of an endorsement, but it’s a lot more favourable than anything the company said to WebM’s earlier alternative, Ogg Theora. Microsoft also continued to raise the issue it did before: the intellectual property risks of patent infringement involved with video encoding and decoding technology, or “codecs”.
“We are strongly committed to making sure that in IE9 you can safely view all types of content in all widely used formats. At the same time, Windows customers, developers and site owners also want assurances that they are protected from IP rights issues when using IE9,” Hachamovitch said.
Web video, a big new feature of the still-developing HTML5 standard, has been deadlocked between two codecs, Ogg Theora and H.264. Microsoft, a major contributor to the H.264 patent pool, builds H.264 support into Windows and will do so with the forthcoming IE9. Apple, which has a single patent in the H.264 pool, also is a big H.264 fan, seeing it as an enabler for web video technology that sidesteps Adobe Systems’ Flash Player.
But Mozilla and Opera rejected H.264, and the industry players creating the HTML5 specification chose against specifying a particular codec. WebM has some potential to ease the situation, but without Microsoft and Apple support, it seems unlikely it would be written into the standard. Apple didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Mozilla is a big fan of WebM and VP8.
“The VP8 codec represents a vast improvement in quality-per-bit over Theora and is comparable in quality to H.264,” Mozilla evangelist Chris Blizzard said. “We will include support for WebM in Firefox. You can get super-early WebM builds of Firefox 4 pre-alpha builds today.”
Opera, too, released a test version of its browser supporting WebM — along with an exhortation to keep patent restrictions off the web.
HTML5 video is a major competitive threat to Adobe’s Flash Player, which under the covers supports H.264 and a VP8 precursor called VP6. But Adobe and Google are allies these days, with Google building Flash into Chrome. So it shouldn’t come as too big a surprise that Adobe CTO Kevin Lynch announced Adobe will build VP8 into Flash Player and distribute it within a year.
“When it comes to video and HTML5, we’re all in. In its HTML5 support, IE9 will support playback of H.264 video as well as VP8 video when the user has installed a VP8 codec on Windows,” said IE general manager Dean Hachamovitch.
Google also released a WebM software developer kit, a licence guide, source code and FAQ.
In its On2 Technologies acquisition, Google argued that “high-quality video compression technology should be a part of the web platform.” (Google is in the process of buying another company, Global IP Solutions, with related technology for video-conferencing and voice-over internet protocol, too.)
Most often today, Adobe Systems’ Flash is the dominant player used to handle web video, with the H.264 codec under the covers handling the data. Web browser makers, including Apple, Mozilla, Microsoft, Google and Opera, want to build video directly into websites without a plug-in such as Flash through the new HTML5 video specification.
However, HTML5 doesn’t specify a particular codec, and the browser makers disagree on which is best. Microsoft and Apple are big fans of H.264. Mozilla and Opera aren’t, and they prefer the open-source Ogg Theora codec, which is based on a VP8 predecessor from years ago called VP3. Google’s Chrome is on the fence, supporting both Ogg Theora and H.264. So for now, web developers thinking about using HTML5 video face a lot of uncertainty.
“Many video codecs are plagued with uncertainty when it comes to patent rights and licensing costs,” said Vic Gundotra, vice president of engineering at Google, in a press conference following its WebM announcement. “The web needs an open standard.”
One of the big advantages H.264 has in the market is hardware support. That means chips can decode video directly rather than running software to do it, a process that’s slower and consumes a lot more power.
Hardware support could come to WebM, said Dan Rayburn, Frost & Sullivan analyst and executive vice president of StreamingMedia.com.
“Numerous sources are telling me that Google plans to announce hardware support for VP8. If true, and VP8 does what On2 claimed it could, the possibility does exist for VP8 to seriously challenge H.264 over time if Google can get enough hardware support, which I think they have a good shot at doing,” Rayburn said. “If that happens, we could see a push away from H.264 if Google approaches the market correctly. Without hardware support, VP8 can do well, but it will never disrupt H.264.”
Video streaming is complicated by patents, though. Mozilla’s top lawyer argues that Ogg Theora is safe to use in regards to patents. But Microsoft has cast doubts on Ogg Theora, and Apple chief executive Steve Jobs apparently is considering a patent attack on open-source video codecs.
Although Microsoft is a major patent contributor of the H.264 patents licensed by a group called MPEG LA, Microsoft pays more than twice to MPEG LA for H.264 licensing rights than it receives from the group, the company said.
By Stephen Shankland, CNET News.com