May One Web Codec–Any Web Codec–Win

By  |  Wednesday, May 19, 2010 at 5:51 pm

“The great thing about standards,” as a wise person once said, “is that there are so many of them.” One of the major pieces of news at today’s Google I|O conference was the company’s introduction of a new standard for Web video. It’s called WebM, and it’s based upon the VP8 video codec created by On2, a company Google acquired last August. WebM is open-source and free of royalties–which means that anyone who builds any product relating to video is free to use it without seeking permission or paying anyone for the privilege.

Two of Google’s browser-making competitors, Mozilla and Opera, took the stage at the conference to throw their support behind WebM. Until now, they’d been championing Ogg Theora–another open codec with some of the same ancestral roots as VP8–and opposing H.264, the codec favored by Apple and Microsoft. (H.264 is open, and carries no royalty requirements at the moment–but that’s supposed to end in 2015.)

Microsoft isn’t among the 40+ companies who Google lined up for the WebM announcement at I|O, but says IE will support Google’s technology on Windows PCs that have the codec installed. Apple, meanwhile, hasn’t been heard from. Given that it’s standardized all its products on H.264 for many years, it would be a shocker if today’s news prompted it to change its plans.

The best thing anyone could say about Theora, as far as I can tell, is that it was open and free. The best thing you can say about VP8/WebM is that it’s a really high-quality, efficient codec. Now it’s open and free–and coupled with HTML5’s video playback support, it’ll let browsers on computers and mobile devices do high-quality video without the need for plug-ins, proprietary technologies, or payments. So Google’s move is welcome.


We’re still left with the prospect of a future in which some applications and devices support only H.264 and some support only WebM. Unless every purveyor of online video encodes every video in both formats, you might not be able to make any assumptions about whether a video you want to watch will play on all the gadgets you own. That doesn’t strike me as a radically better scenario than the current state of affairs–in which you can probably watch videos if you’ve got Flash, and might not be able to if you don’t.

Ogg Theora was weak enough that I wondered if Mozilla and Opera would be forced to grit their teeth and surrender to the inevitability of H.264. As a stronger contender, WebM could actually push a solution to the codec mess out further into the future.

Of course, very few of the people who use browsers care about competing standards with varying degrees of openness and varying technical benefits. They just want to be confident that their video will play. Which is why I’d like to see one codec come to dominate the Web sooner rather than later–and I don’t much care which one it is.



9 Comments For This Post

  1. Per Helge Seglsten Says:

    What will it mean that Google now is about to aquire sound/video codec firm Global IP Solutions?

  2. Paul Judd Says:

    (H.264 is open, and carries no royalty requirements at the moment–but that’s supposed to end in 2015.)

    That’s not necessarily the case – that’s just the next time the no royalty license it up for renewal – the MPEG LA meets every 5 years to decide these things and they cannot (or will not for whatever reason) grant it permanently, they just can renew it along with all of their other licenses. Just because it expires in 2015 doesn’t mean that things will suddenly change strictly speaking – and there has been no statements made by any of it’s members that they intend to change how things are when they meet 5 years from now. Yes it is possible that MPEG LA might change the licensing terms in 5 years, but my guess is that they won’t. Such is the unpredictability of technology in general though.

    And if you think about it, it makes sense since they would want to encourage adoption and really don’t want to burden average consumers with license requirements that most people would not understand. Makes it easier for software companies too.

  3. Otto Says:

    Well, if people would stop supporting the proprietary, patent-encumbered, and decidedly non-free H.264, the problem would go away.

    Seriously, whose brilliant idea was it to take our modern video standards and put them all the control over one entity? Why does MPEG-LA have ANY say over what video formats we are allowed to use?

    Eliminate MPEG. It’s no longer helpful. Quite the opposite, in fact.

  4. Ryan Patterson Says:

    You make a pretty big assumption that a single video standard is the correct way forward. I strongly disagree. Guess what VP8 will not be the best codec forever. Eventually something better will come along. If there is one established codec standard then it will be a lot harder for a competitor to break into the market. VP8 should exist along side H.264 and Theora. After all modern browsers don’t support one single image compression codec/file format. Jpeg, png, svg, gif all exist along side each other. Why should browsers limit their support to a single video codec?

  5. Evan Says:

    Why would you not care if all the video on the web is under the threat of a time bomb in five years? I would rather have decreased quality/coding efficiency than potential lawsuits and/or onerous licensing restrictions and fees for all the producers and distributors of web video and browsers.

  6. Joshua Rhoderick Says:

    Otto: you misunderstand the situation.

    The MPEG-LA is a consortium, not a controlling entity per se. Companies apply to the MPEG-LA’s AVC/H.2464 patent pool when they believe that their patents are implicated in the technology. If accepted, they then become a member of the pool.

    This provides a one stop shop for anyone who wants to license the technology. So, if you are building car stereos and you want them to play H.264 encoded content, rather than individually pay royalties individually to Toshiba, Sony, LG, Sharp, Hitachi, iMicrosoft, Apple, etc., you only need to pay one royalty fee to the MPEG-LA which then disburses the fee to the licensors based upon their claims.

    The MPEG-LA is effectively a spokesman for these companies, and that is why it has “control.” Unfortunately, because of our terrible patent system, you can’t create a multimedia codec that does NOT infringe upon existing patents, so such pools are necessary. If you don’t like the situation, lobby the government to review patent law. These companies are just taking advantage of the stupid laws.

  7. Chris Says:

    You’re dreaming if you think that there are no patents that WebM does not violate. The MPEG-LA has 1,135 patents in the H.264 pool. I am going to make a wild assumption and guess that there is at least one patent in the pool that WebM violates. And I am sure they will go after Google for royalties on that patent.
    Oh, and that doesn’t count the patents for MPEG4 that AT&T holds that they say applies to H.264 as well.

    I have a feeling all this patent crap is going to have to get much worse before it gets better.

  8. Tom B Says:

    H.264 is the standard. Nothing Google does matters anymore; they’ve lost all their mojo.

  9. Hamranhansenhansen Says:

    > “The great thing about standards,” as a wise person once
    > said, “is that there are so many of them.”

    WebM is not a standard. Google is not a standards body.

    The nice thing about audio video, is there’s only ever been one standard. The audio video industry has come together as a community in ISO’s MPEG group, which has been very, very successful in making audio video universally playable. You could play video CD’s (MPEG-1) and DVD’s (MPEG-2) in any device from any manufacturer, and you can play H.264 (MPEG-4) in any device from any manufacturer. For example, iPhone or Blackberry, iTunes or Blu-Ray, YouTube or Netflix, Flip or Kodak, FlashPlayer or QuickTime Player, Final Cut Pro or Avid, Safari or Chrome or IE9.

    That is in sharp contrast to W3C and the Web, which has never, ever been standardized successfully. We made IE6/Flash websites during HTML4, not HTML4 websites. Even now, a lot of Web content is locked up in Flash and not visible on most Web platforms. A lot of users are still stuck on IE6 because that’s the only place some of their Web apps work.

    If you’re going to use a nonstandard video codec in HTML5, then don’t even bother with HTML5. What is the point of standard markup with nonstandard video? Ridiculous.

    The most significant impact of WebM will be to keep Mozilla and Opera on their political high horse until all of their users have switched to Chrome. Google FTW.

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