The Death of H.264 In HTML5? Google Opens WebM and VP8

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Google met our expectations today and announced that it’s On2 Technologies VP8 video codec is now open source. It’s supposed to outperform Ogg Theora and will be completely patent-free. If you remember, I wrote that this was expected. Google, who bought On2 Technologies for about $125M, announced today at Google IO  that they have open sourced On2’s VP8 codec under a royalty-free license.

WebM also includes the Ogg Vorbis audio codec. Oh, and like I said they would, Google has already started encoding videos with the codec on YouTube. (Rock on Chris!)

According to the announcement, all 720p or higher videos uploaded to YouTube will automatically be encoded using WebM and they’ve put out a WebM software developer kit, as well as the source code.

Both Opera and Firefox were on hand to state that the browsers will both package the codec in upcoming versions.

WebM is a cross-industry initiative with hardware support from AMD, ARM and NVidia so they can work on hardware acceleration as well as making it a viable alternative to H.264.

Sure, Apple and Microsoft are using H.264 and I’m sure they’re going to resist any kind of move to WebM. However, they don’t control HTML5 so if they want their respective browsers to be compatible, which they generally don’t care about, they’ll have to adopt it sooner or later if it becomes the HTML5 standard codec.

The problem is the patents. Steve Jobs recently sent an email to a member of the Free Software Foundation that talked about a patent pool being assembled to attack Ogg Theora over some patent-infringing inclusions. Oddly, he left out whether or not they were involved or indeed masterminding it to keep H.264 as the forerunner. He claimed that

“All video codecs are covered by patents,” read the reply. “A patent pool is being assembled to go after Theora and other ‘open source’ codecs now. Unfortunately, just because something is open source, it doesn’t mean or guarantee that it doesn’t infringe on others patents. An open standard is different from being royalty free or open source.”

Gee, you’re right Steve, I wonder if there’s a patent pool being put together to go after some patent infringing material in your beloved H.264 codec. After all, you just said they’re all covered by patents and so it’s entirely possible that it infringes on other patents (as you claim Ogg Theora does).

What to make out of it all? Well, if Google is going to offer WebM as open source, and there’s a large association of companies including some of the largest in computing, behind the codec, it certainly seems like it’s got a good amount of momentum.

Really, if Intel were to back WebM as well, I think it would be done once and for all. Think about it AMD (who owns ATi) and NVidia have both already voiced support. What does that leave left in the graphics chip industry? Intel. But even without them, the two largest makers of 3rd-party graphics cards are already there.

Game on!


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