Google tries freeing Web video with WebM

The Web giant has released a royalty-free video technology to counter H.264. Allies include Mozilla, Opera, and its own YouTube.

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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 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 May 19th, 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 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 from the Xiph.Org Foundation.

The "codec" technology for encoding and decoding video competes with H.264, a format that Apple and Microsoft prefer but that 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.

Apple, Microsoft, Opera, and Mozilla didn't immediately comment for this story.

Google also released a WebM software developer kit, a license 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 videoconferencing 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 Web sites 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 come 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 it 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 a 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.

Tom Krazit contributed to this report.

Updated at 12:45 p.m. PDT with additional comment from Google.

Corrected at 12:38 a.m. PDT May 20 to reflect that the Ogg Vorbis audio format originated with the Xiph.Org Foundation.