The older VP8 hasn't taken the world by storm, but VP9 could give Google a fresh start in its attempt to popularize royalty-free video streaming.
VP9, the successor to Google's VP8 video compression technology at the center of a techno-political controversy, has made its first appearance outside Google's walls.
Google has built VP9 support into Chrome, though only in an early-stage version of the browser for developers. In another change, it also added support for the new Opus audio compression technology that's got the potential to improve voice communications and music streaming on the Internet.
VP9 and Opus are codecs, technology used to encode streams of data into compressed form then decode them later, enabling efficient use of limited network or storage capacity. Peter Beverloo, a developer on Google's Chrome team, pointed out the new codec support in a blog post earlier this month.
Releasing VP9 gives Google a chance to improve the video-streaming performance and improve other aspects of VP8. That's important in competing with today's prevailing video compression technology, H.264, and with a successor called H.265 or HEVC that also has the potential to be attract broad support across the electronics and computing industry with better compression performance.
Codecs might seem an uninteresting nuts-and-bolts aspect of computing, but they actually ignite fierce debates that pit those who like H.264's convenience and quality against those who like that Google offers VP for free use.
H.264 is used in videocameras, Blu-Ray discs, YouTube, and more. But most organizations using it must pay patent royalties to a group called MPEG LA that licenses H.264-related patents on behalf of their many owners.
Google has tried to spur adoption of VP8 instead, which it's released for royalty-free use. One major area: online video built into Web pages through the HTML5 standard.
However, VP8 hasn't dented H.264's dominance, and VP8 allies failed in an attempt to specify VP8 as the way to handle online video. As a result, HTML5 video can be invoked in a standard way, but Web developers can't easily be assured that a browser can properly decode the video in question. Internet Explorer and Safari support H.264 video, Firefox and Opera support VP8 video, and Chrome supports both codecs.
Google had tried to encourage VP8 adoption by pledging in 2011 to remove H.264 support from Chrome, but it reversed course and left the support in. Mozilla, several of whose members were bitter about Google's reversal, has since begun adapting Firefox so it can use H.264 when the operating system supports it. Windows 7 and 8, Apple's OS X and iOS, and Google's Android all have H.264 support built in.
One cloud that's hung over VP8 is the possibility that others besides Google would demand royalty payments for patented technology it uses. Indeed, MPEG LA requested such organizations come forth as it considered adding VP8 licensing program, and it said last year that 12 organizations have said they have patents essential to VP8 use.
But it's been nearly two years since MPEG LA issued started seeking VP8-related patents, and the organization still hasn't offered a license.
The VP8 and VP9 codecs have their origins at On2 Technologies, a company Google acquired for $123 million. Google and assorted allies combined VP8 with the freely usable Vorbis audio codec to form a streaming-video technology called WebM.