The future of WebM, a free new Google technology for streaming video, is uncertain, but already it's changed the industry. Here's a look how.
Stephen ShanklandFormer 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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Shankland covered the tech industry for more than 25 years and was a science writer for five years before that. He has deep expertise in microprocessors, digital photography, computer hardware and software, internet standards, web technology, and more.
Google, trying step by step to rebuild everything in the computing industry from Internet protocols to cloud-computing services, began a new project called WebM on Wednesday that seeks to begin a new chapter in Web video.
WebM is a codec--but what's a codec?
A codec is technology to encode and decode video or audio data. They're used to convert the high-quality source material of a movie, for example, into compressed form that's more easily transmitted over the Internet or stored on a Blu-ray disc. Then they're used to convert that compressed data into something that people can watch or listen to again. The prevailing video codec today is called H.264, aka AVC, and for audio, it's MP3. There are many others, however, including the AAC technology Apple uses for audio in iTunes and iPods, the Xiph.Org Foundation's Ogg Vorbis audio codec and Ogg Theora video codec. Codecs can run in hardware or software, but hardware acceleration is particularly useful when trying to decode video quickly enough to handle high-resolution displays or efficiently enough to preserve mobile-phone battery power.
Where does WebM fit in?
WebM combines the Ogg Vorbis audio codec with the VP8 video codec Google obtained through its February 2010 acquisition of On2 Technologies for $133.9 million. On2 has a long history in codecs: Its earlier VP3 technology formed the foundation of Ogg Theora, and its VP6 was widely used in video streaming on the Web by virtue of its inclusion in Adobe Systems' Flash Player. VP8 had only been under development until this week, but now Google has issued the specification for the technology, source code and a software developer kit to let programmers use it, and a collection of partners who endorsed it in varying degrees. In contrast to how On2 handled its codecs and to how an industry group called MPEG LA licenses patents for using H.264, Google released WebM as a royalty-free technology. That means among other things that nobody will have to pay for using it and that open-source software projects can incorporate it directly.
Hooray! Free codecs for everyone! Who could possibly be unhappy about this?
The 26 companies and organizations that have contributed to the pool of H.264 patents. Among them: Microsoft, LG Electronics, Panasonic, Philips Electronics, Samsung, Sharp, Sony, and Toshiba. Apple holds a single patent in the pool, too. It's not cheap to research video technology, and it's not cheap to license it, either. For example, even though Microsoft holds 73 patents in the H.264 pool, the company pays twice as much for its rights to ship H.264 support in Windows 7 as it receives back from MPEG LA for its share of the rights.
What's MPEG LA doing about it?
At a minimum, it's raising doubts about whether VP8 infringes video patents, and maybe more. Group spokesman Tom O'Reilly won't comment about whether VP8 infringes any H.264 patents, but he did say Thursday that MPEG LA is considering a new patent pool that would license any patents used in VP8 technology: "Although we assume virtually all codecs are based on patented technology, the AVC/H.264 License we offer is limited to providing coverage for the use of AVC/H.264." Added MPEG LA Chief Executive Larry Horn, "Google has the right to disclaim royalties for its own technologies, if any, but it doesn't have the right to disclaim them without appropriate permissions for technologies owned by others, or otherwise contribute to the infringement of those technologies."
The MPEG LA might offer a license for any patented technology in VP8. "In view of the marketplace uncertainties regarding patent licensing needs for such technologies, there have been expressions of interest from the market urging us to facilitate formation of licenses that would address the market's need for a convenient one-stop marketplace alternative to negotiating separate licenses with individual patent holders in accessing essential patent rights for VP8 as well as other codecs, and we are looking into the prospects of doing so," Horn told All Things Digital.
It's not certain, but this could be the patent effort Apple CEO Steve Jobs apparently discussed in an April e-mail to a Free Software Foundation Europe member, saying, "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."
So what happens next with VP8, WebM, and intellectual property?
It's not clear, but Google had to have carefully considered these patent concerns before releasing VP8, and Google has both the deep pockets and the motive to duke it out in court. Of course, if a patent infringement suit is filed, Google might not necessarily be the target.
One observer with some history in the area is more sanguine: Monty Montgomery, who worked on the Ogg Vorbis codec. "The threats in the press recently aren't any different than they have been for the past 10 years. Lots of barking, no bite yet," he said. "The howling from MPEG was much louder when Vorbis first appeared in 2000."
Especially given the risks, why would Google buy something for $133.9 million then give it away for free?
Google is unusually high-minded and principled sometimes, but there's usually a profit motive involved in its actions, too, and VP8 and WebM are no exception. Google is working on many fronts to make the Web more actively used and a more powerful foundation for new uses. That, in turn, leads to more searching at Google and more search-ad revenue, and it can increase the utility and popularity of services such as Google Apps, Google Maps, and Google Buzz. But licensing requirements impose barriers to the growth of the Web--leaving aside the open-source difficulties, Firefox backer Mozilla would have to pay $5 million for an H.264 patent license, for instance. Imagine a company making phones designed to watch streaming YouTube videos or cameras designed to upload directly to YouTube. That company must pay royalties to use H.264, adding to the cost of the devices and limiting their sales to a mainstream market. Today a lot of video content still is delivered through traditional cable TV networks, but the more powerful the Web is at handling video, the more powerful Google is in the media technology realm.
This all sounds very theoretical. When will the rubber hit the road?
It's there already. Google assembled a lot of partners in the media and technology world to endorse VP8 and WebM, a crucial step and support is essential for such a complicated technology whose success depends on adoption across several industries. Logitech will use VP8 in its video chat service. Qualcomm, a power in the mobile phone market, will "collaborate with On2/Google's engineering teams to support VP8 codec on our mobile platforms and deliver a rich video experience on Qualcomm-powered mobile devices." Competitor Texas Instruments said, "With access to the VP8 code, our OMAP 4 platform delivers high-resolution VP8 decode at the low power levels that mobile architectures demand." And Broadcom: "The WebM multimedia format is currently in development and expected to be available to VideoCore [processor] customers in Q3 2010. Broadcom worked with Google during the definition phase of the VP8 video codec included in WebM, reviewing the architecture's suitability for mobile applications." Last, another chipmaker: "MIPS Technologies will work with its partners and licensees to ensure fully optimized hardware/software support for VP8."
Also on board are companies such as Sorenson Media that offer encoding technology for those who want to deliver WebM streams. But there's work yet to do: Graphics chip leaders Nvidia and AMD didn't commit to endorsing the technology, and Intel didn't even endorse it, despite its prominent placement in the Google TV initiative.
So how do you try WebM?
Today, the easiest way is downloading a rough developer-oriented test version of two browsers that will have support built-in: Firefox and Opera. Programmers have been working to add support for some time, but only made the changes public after Google's announcement. The open-source project behind Google Chrome, Chromium, has been updated with WebM support, but it'll take until May 24 for it to sift into the developer channel of the Chrome browser for convenient testing. Apple has been mum about its VP8 and WebM plans, but it's a big booster of H.264. Microsoft, another H.264 fan, has said its future IE9 will support VP8 if somebody takes the trouble of installing software to enable it.
Of course, you'll need some video to watch, too, and here the obvious destination is the HTML5 version of YouTube, where Google is testing support for the new video support built directly into Web pages. All videos uploaded to YouTube with 720p resolution or better will be encoded with WebM. Google just added Firefox and Opera to its supported browser list by virtue of WebM, but the company has only just begun transcoding video into the format, so there isn't an entire parallel-universe version of the video site available yet with the new codec.
Wait--I've been watching video on the Web for years. What's so new and experimental about it?
Most video on the Web today, including what's shown at Vimeo, YouTube, and Hulu, is actually delivered with Adobe's Flash Player plug-in. But many in the browser world don't like plug-ins when video could theoretically be delivered seamlessly within a Web page, the way JPEG images are, for example. Plug-in-based content often is a separate island within a Web page, and plug-ins come with memory and security issues as well. Consequently the groups behind the development of the Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) standard for Web pages are working on HTML5, an update that features support for built-in video.
Nice idea, but a big problem: the divided loyalties between the H.264 fans, notably Apple and now Microsoft, and the Ogg Theora fans, Opera and Mozilla, and with Google not interested in moving YouTube to Ogg Theora. With no agreement, HTML5 editor Ian Hickson let the video support go ahead with no codec specified.
So if VP8 is a more competitive alternative to H.264 than Ogg Theora was, will the Web standards group settle on a choice?
Conceivably, but not likely anytime soon. Two groups oversee HTML: The Web Hypertext Application Technology Working Group (WHATWG) and the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). Here's what Philippe Le Hegaret, leader of Web video work at the W3C, had to say: "WebM/VP8 has the potential of providing a solution for the baseline video format of HTML5. In order to be seriously considered by the W3C HTML Working Group, the specification would need to go through a standards group and be developed under RF [royalty-free] licensing participation terms. W3C remains interested in having a video format for HTML5 that is compatible with the W3C Royalty-Free Patent Policy."
Added HTML5 editor Hickson, "What the spec says will depend entirely on what implementations (in particular browser vendors) decide to support." That poses something of a chicken-and-egg problem, though: Microsoft has said it's "all in" with HTML5 support, implying that it would grow more enthusiastic about WebM if it became an official part of HTML5, but inclusion in the specification is at least somewhat contingent on browser support.
So at least for the near term, Web developers will have to deal with multiple codecs if they want to supply video through HTML5. Having WebM available, though, does advance the state of the art and make HTML5 video more palatable to those who had philosophical and practical objections to H.264.
So if HTML5 video has a stronger future, Flash is doomed, right?
Guess again. To Adobe, VP8 is just another codec, and indeed the company is embracing it. "We're going to put VP8 inside Flash Player, and we are going to distribute VP8 to over a billion people in less than a year of its release. We're going to really help push out the VP8 codec," said Chief Technology Officer Kevin Lynch at the Google show. In addition to Adobe's strategic decision to sell tools for both Flash and HTML development, Adobe offers other reasons a Web developer might want to stick with Flash for now, including digital rights management protection of video streams. Some are convinced by Flash's merits--including one major video site, Hulu.
Overall, for most people, WebM won't be a very visible change. But for those who build the Web itself, WebM already has transformed the industry.