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Google documents VP8 at standards group IETF

The Net giant has lodged its video codec with the Internet standards group--but the move is independent from standardization, Google says.

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The VP8 encoding technology at the heart of Google's effort to spread royalty-free video across the computing industry now has a home at the Internet Engineering Task Force--but not so Google can standardize it.

VP8 is a Google codec used to convert video into a more compact form for tasks such as streaming across the Internet, broadcast over the airwaves, or storage on a camera. VP8 and the Vorbis audio codec are the basis for WebM, an open-source and royalty-free technology that Google hopes will lower barriers for using video on the Net and elsewhere. Although WebM's open-source, royalty-free nature eases adoption, so far it isn't a standard--something that could ease adoption further. Standards can let multiple companies influence a technology and can provide assurances that its features are stable enough to rely on.

Google representatives published the "VP8 Data Format and Decoding Guide" at the IETF earlier this month, but that doesn't signal standardization, the company said in a statement. The document details the VP8 bitstream--the actual sequence of bytes into which video is encoded.

"We submitted the VP8 bitstream reference as an IETF Independent RFC [request for comments] to create a canonical public reference for the document," Google said. "This is independent from a standards track."

The IETF document could help allay one concern VP8 critics have raised: that VP8 is defined not by documentation of the bitstream but rather by the source code of the software Google released to implement VP8. But the IETF document still plays a subordinate role to that source code.

"If there are any conflicts between this document and the reference source code, the reference source code should be considered correct. The bitstream is defined by the reference source code and not this document," the IETF document said.

The document, though not a standard and not canonical, does indicate that Google is working to make VP8 and WebM something broader than an in-house Google project and something more approachable than thousands of lines of programming source code.

Google didn't comment on whether it plans to standardize VP8. But it's not hard to imagine it doing so, at least after it's had more time to marshal allies that could contribute politically and technologically. Candidates for such an alliance that spring to mind include Adobe Systems, which has pledged to include VP8 in its Flash Player, and Mozilla, which has built WebM support into its Firefox browser.

VP8 was developed by On2 Technologies, which Google acquired for about $123 million in early 2010. VP8's chief rival, H.264, is much more widely used in the industry, including Blu-ray players, editing software, smartphone decoding chips, video cameras, Apple's Safari browser, and Microsoft's upcoming IE9 browser. Using H.264 in a product requires licensing a pool of patents from a group called MPEG LA, (though free video streamed over the Internet with H.264 requires no royalty payments). Google wants a codec with no patent barriers.

MPEG LA cast a shadow over VP8 last year by publicly questioning VP8's patent pedigree and raising the prospect that those using VP8 might need to license patents from parties besides Google. "We assume virtually all codecs are based on patented technology," MPEG LA Chief Executive Larry Horn said in a May 2010 interview.

There are some signs VP8 sidesteps at least some patent concerns, said Barry Negrin, an intellectual property attorney at Pryor Cashman who previously worked on some On2 patent applications for two VP8 predecessors, VP6 and VP7. Specifically, some "sub-optimal" approaches used in VP8 "may have been intentional work-arounds to avoid patent claims," Negrin said. In addition, he's not aware of any MPEG LA suits against On2 Technologies for VP6 and VP7, which could work in Google's favor if a suit emerged.

But even though months have passed with no elaboration on MPEG LA's initial statements about VP8, there's no assurance yet that those implementing VP8 have nothing to worry about.

"It's definitely too soon to tell," he said, adding that the statute of limitations on patent infringement is six years in the United States. "Given the complexity of the VP8 code and the sheer number of patent claims that need to be reviewed by MPEG LA, it could be a couple of years before they themselves have sufficient certainty to mount litigation.

Controversially, Google announced it will remove H.264 support from its Chrome browser for playing HTML video, meaning that the browser will come only with built-in video support for VP8 and an earlier cousin called Theora. That announcement last week caused a backlash, in part because some feared it would hamper the arrival of HTML's nascent built-in video support.

But in practice, with Firefox and Opera supporting WebM and Safari and IE9 supporting H.264, built-in video in HTML already was suffering from a significant codec problem. An unrepentant Google defended the move, suggesting it's unlikely to reverse course.