Google, Mozilla, and Opera have announced a new video codec for the web, WebM, based on VP8 video and Vorbis audio, available as an open source project with no royalty on use. There are already nightlies of Chrome, Firefox, and Opera availalable with WebM support, Adobe has announced that they will be bundling support for WebM into the Flash platform, and, perhaps most surprisingly, Microsoft has posted on their IEBlog that they will support WebM playback if the user has the VP8 codec installed. Software isn’t the only huge news: Google has announced a massive list of who’s who in the hardware industry, including ARM, NVidia, and AMD.
I have never in my life seen such a rapid and definite industry coalition form behind anything in the technology industry, especially with regards to web standards. I’m sure many of the hardware vendors were already there since before On2 was acquired by Google, but the rapid movement of software vendors is truly amazing.
Now the real challenge begins: building in hardware support to begin entrenching WebM into the industry, and staving off patent risks. The former seems very doable, given that there’s a potential dark cloud 5 years out with H.264 when its licensing fees are up for debate again, and 5 years is a long time to implement, perfect, and transition to a royalty-free codec. The latter would seem to be the biggest challenge. The lead developer of x264, an open source H.264 implementation, has cited numerous areas where VP8 essentially copies the very patented H.264 spec. It’s very telling that Microsoft very careful in their blog post to point out that the patent and security issues behind WebM aren’t clear, and that it will only support it in IE9 <video> if the user takes it upon him/herself to install the codec onto their computers.
It seems all but certain that, as referenced by the above photograph, MPEG-LA is wasting no time in preparing the patent lawyers for deployment. There are some big pockets lining up behind WebM, and a lot of profit to be lost if H.264 loses the dominance that MPEG-LA has spent a decade building up.
Through all the announcement hoopla, I find it frustrating that people are singling out Apple with the sentiment of, “How about it Apple, open standards or control of the web?” People tend to think of Apple as the evil manipulator of H.264 simply because it was one of H.264’s earliest supporters. In fact, Apple only has one of the 900-odd patents involved with H.264. Microsoft, who holds nine, I believe, has stated that they pay much more than they gain because they license H.264 for their users. I can only imagine that is even more true for Apple. Apple is, however, very adept at patent law, and realizes the size of its own pockets. Apple doesn’t want to be sued for supporting a patent-encumbered codec. Where Apple can be faulted, however, is that they’re far too happy being on the suing end, noting the current phone industry chaos.