Google, Nokia face off in video codec dispute

Nokia says Google is trying to force VP8 down the computing industry's throat, but Google is backing up its free video technology with patent deals and help with HTC's legal defense against Nokia.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes 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.
Expertise processors, semiconductors, web browsers, quantum computing, supercomputers, AI, 3D printing, drones, computer science, physics, programming, materials science, USB, UWB, Android, digital photography, science Credentials
  • I've been covering the technology industry for 24 years and was a science writer for five years before that. I've got deep expertise in microprocessors, digital photography, computer hardware and software, internet standards, web technology, and other dee
Stephen Shankland
3 min read
WebRTC logo
The WebRTC standard for Web-based communications is a battleground for Nokia and Google over the VP8 video technology.

The nascent WebRTC standard for video communications on the Web has become a technology battleground pitting Google against Nokia.

The reason for a war not just of words but also of actions is a lowly technology called a codec, which compresses video for efficient networking and compact storage. Google wants the Net to embrace its royalty-free, open-source VP8 codec, but Nokia is trying to quash VP8 by refusing to license patents it says are required to use it.

Google, meanwhile, has come to the aid of Android phone maker HTC in a Nokia patent-infringement case that involves VP8.

Why the hard feelings? In a statement, Nokia said it's trying to keep Google from infringing its patents and forcing inferior, proprietary technology down the industry's throat:

Nokia believes that open and collaborative efforts for standardization are in the best interests of consumers, innovators and the industry as a whole. We are now witnessing one company attempting to force the adoption of its proprietary technology, which offers no advantages over existing, widely deployed standards such as H.264 and infringes Nokia's intellectual property. As a result, we have taken the unusual step of declaring to the Internet Engineering Task Force that we are not prepared to license any Nokia patents which may be needed to implement its RFC6386 specification for VP8, or for derivative codecs.

VP8 is an element of Google's effort to advance the Web so that people and companies do more and more with it. The more time people spend online, the more they use Google services.

VP8's main competitor today is a standard called H.264, aka AVC, that a broad coalition of companies and other organizations produce through the Moving Picture Experts Group (MPEG). They've just finished work on a sequel called HEVC/H.265 that's just now in the early stages of coming to market, but Google is working on successor called VP9.

The lever Google is pushing on to try to advance VP8's fortunes is WebRTC, a new standard for setting up video and audio communications over the Web. Google, like some allies including Firefox maker Mozilla and the World Wide Web Consortium standards group, wants a royalty-free video codec for the Web so that programmers can use it as easily as they do JPEG and PNG for graphics today. Google and its allies want VP8 specified as a mandatory-to-implement codec for WebRTC.

Google has spent millions of dollars pursuing its royalty-free video dream -- first through the $123 million acquisition of VP8 developer On2 Technologies, then through sustained development and promotion of the technology, and now through legal means. Earlier this month, Google announced a deal with MPEG LA, which licenses pools of patents used for various video codecs, that resolved patent infringement objections raised by 11 companies through MPEG LA. Nokia is not part of the deal.

And Google is helping defend VP8 elsewhere -- including Nokia's patent lawsuit against Android phone maker HTC, which includes VP8 in its infringement claims. According to a Google statement:

The amazing innovation we see on the Web is made possible by open, community-developed technologies, and VP8 brings those principles to video. Our agreement to clear rights with MPEG LA and our intervention in Nokia's lawsuit against HTC over VP8 demonstrate our strong support for the standard.

The rhetoric from each side can exaggerate the opposition's shortcomings.

H.264 is hardly closed, given that anyone can license it and that a broad range of interested parties develop it collaboratively. And VP8 is not entirely open, since at least today Google controls it. But others are involved in VP8, too, and Google is supporting an effort to standardize VP8 through MPEG as the new Internet Video Codec. At the same time, it's hard to say VP8 "offers no advantages" over H.264, given the expense of royalty payments for that technology.

What remains to be seen is whether one or both companies will yield, perhaps nudged by unfavorable court verdicts or lucrative licensing payments. Nokia may say now it won't license its patents under any terms, but money and litigation have been known to change corporate priorities.