Google ratchets up VP8 video quality--but so do video rivals

The "Duclair" release brings Google's royalty-free video encoder software to version 1.0.0. But a sequel to rival H.264 is waiting in the wings, too.

Stephen Shankland Former Principal Writer
Stephen Shankland worked at CNET from 1998 to 2024 and wrote about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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Stephen Shankland
4 min read
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Google has released "Duclair," the new version 1.0.0 of its VP8 technology that the company says does a better job encoding video and faster job decoding it.

And it's a good thing, too, because VP8 is taking on not only the incumbent H.264, but also a sequel called High Efficiency Video Coding (HEVC) from the same group that's well under development.

VP8 and H.264 are codecs, technology for compressing video for more compact storage or for more efficient transmission over a network. But the two come from very different backgrounds. Google hopes VP8 will free the Web from patent-encumbered video, but the group building HEVC explicitly permits patents (PDF). And, some members, such as Microsoft and the Frauenhofer Institute, have a strong interest in royalty revenue.

Patents aren't a matter for VP8 allies to brush off lightly. MPEG LA, the group that licenses the pool of H.264 patents on behalf patent holders, has issued rumblings that VP8 violates patents from 12 organizations. But in more than a year and a half since VP8 was first released, the codec hasn't triggered any direct litigation or the formation of a new MPEG LA patent pool whose existence would undermine Google's royalty-free aspiration.

In combination with the Vorbis audio codec, VP8 forms Google's WebM streaming-video technology. Google released VP8 as a royalty-free, open-source alternative to H.264 technology in hopes of making video on the Internet as straightforward to use as image formats such as JPEG. Google uses WebM extensively at YouTube, but the format hasn't achieved widespread adoption so far.

Quality and performance improvements in VP8 are necessary to attract allies and to keep up with the competition. The outcome of that competition will be important to everyone from browser makers and Web developers to makers of mobile phones and cameras.

So far, among browser makers, Google, Mozilla, and Opera have opted to support WebM, while Apple and Microsoft have picked H.264, leading to complex choices for Web developers. Apple's iOS, though, has given a big boost to H.264 because Adobe Systems' Flash Player, widely used to smooth over video codec complications, doesn't work on the mobile operating system.

However, although H.264 is lodged firmly in everything from Windows 7 to Nikon's latest D4 SLR, it's also on its way to becoming yesterday's rival to VP8. Development of HEVC, sometimes called H.265, is well under way at the Joint Collaborative Team on Video Coding (JCT-VC), a cooperation between experts at the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and the Motion Picture Experts Group (MPEG) associated with the International Organization for Standardization (ISO).

HEVC is moving along. Last year, its backers created a fifth draft of the technology, and the codec is the subject of a JTC-VC meeting this week in San Jose, Calif. Meeting sponsors include Intel, Sony, and Microsoft.

The JCT-VC aims to build a codec that can match high-quality H.264 video using only half the data throughput, the group said. The goal is to finish a draft of the HEVC standard by July. Improving video quality at the same rate of bits per second is the holy grail of codec development; such improvements often come at the price of greater processing burdens and longer delays from when a video stream arrives and when the video itself can be shown.

MPEG isn't all about patents, though. At its November-December meeting in Geneva, the group discussed "two tracks towards royalty-free video coding," IVC and WebVC, the group said. WebVC is based on a basic version of H.264, and "Proponents of WebVC have indicated that they hope to convince stakeholders to grant a royalty-free license for this technology, which was originally standardized in 2003," the group said.

Intellectual property is one matter. Technology is another, and when VP8 first emerged as part of the WebM project, some questioned its video quality. Google, though, has been steadily working on the codec.

Google has released new VP8 updates at a steady pace, though.

Among the new VP8 features is the ability to encode video at multiple resolutions at the same time and a 10.5 percent speed boost at decoding video, said WebM product manager John Luther in a blog post on Friday. In addition, encoding speed improvements range from less than 1 percent to 10.5 percent, depending on the quality level, he said, and encoding changes should be "of particular interest to real-time streaming applications."

Friday's "Duclair" release is the fourth of the software library, called libvpx, but the first to bear the 1.0.0 release number that traditionally signifies the first version of software mature enough to use. It isn't binary compatible with earlier versions, meaning that software using libvpx must be rebuilt with the new version in mind, Google said.

In parallel with the software developer kit and libvpx, Google also releases a hardware version of VP8 for processor makers to include in their chips. It, too, steadily improves with new releases.