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Google Brings an Open Source Gun to the Video Codec Battle

Google Brings an Open Source Gun to the Video Codec Battle

"HTML5 doesn't specify which video and audio codecs to use," according to Thomas Ford at Opera Software."That's why we have a codec war. First there was Theora, then H.264 and now there's WebM." WebM is Google's new open source media format, and it's going head to head with H.264, a standard favored by Google and Microsoft.

Google on Thursday announced WebM, a royalty-free media file format for online video. With WebM, Google has thrown the gauntlet to H.264, the codec backed by rivals Apple and Microsoft, among others.

Buried within the new format's FAQ was news about another Google project: Android. The next iteration of the mobile operating system, dubbed "Gingerbread," will be released in the fourth quarter of this year.

What Is WebM?

WebM is an open, royalty-free media file format designed for the Web. Its files consist of video streams compressed with the VP8 codec and audio streams compressed with the Vorbis audio codec. Its file structure is based on the Matroska media container.

Vorbis is an open source audio compression technology that's an independent project of the Xiph Foundation. Matroska is a multimedia container format derived from a project called "MCF."

WebM files run on supported Web browsers or media players. Google Chromium will support WebM from Thursday, Opera Labs already supports WebM for several operating systems, and Mozilla Firefox will also support WebM files.

YouTube is supporting WebM, of course, and Adobe is also backing the VP8 codec.

Brightcove has announced that one of its clients, The New York Times, will test WebM soon.

Google will release QuickTime and DirectShow plug-ins in the next few weeks that will allow many third-party encoding applications to produce WebM files. On Thursday it released a developer preview for the WebM project.

WebM versus H.264

In unveiling WebM, Google is locking horns with Apple and Microsoft, both of which support the H.264 codec. Cupertino and Redmond have suggested using H.264 and HTML5 instead of Adobe Flash for online videos. Flash, they declared, is creaky and outdated.

However, the battle's not just about the best technology. The real issue is money.

"HTML5 doesn't specify which video and audio codecs to use," Thomas Ford, a spokesperson for browser developer Opera, pointed out."That's why we have a codec war. First there was Theora, then H.264 and now there's WebM."

What's in it for the winner? Dominance of online videos, and that could involve some serious pocket change.

The H.264 codec uses patents that are owned by developer companies, including Microsoft and Apple. Users will have to pay fees to MPEG LA, a private company that administers the licenses for H.264, among others.

Google's WebM Licensing Terms

MPEG LA issues five-year licenses. In February, the company announced that it will not charge users of the H.264 codec royalties for the technology through to December 2015.

Further, there are fears that patent holders may sue users if a dispute arises.

Google may hope to undercut all these problems by making WebM a free and open source project and modifying its licensing terms. Its license is based on BSD and Apache, so licensees can use the VP8 code in both proprietary and open source software with few restrictions.

The main modification Google made to the licensing terms is that its VP8 license grants patent rights, and it terminates if patent litigation is filed alleging the code has been infringed.

"H.264 isn't a very good option because of the rights issues around it," Opera's Ford told LinuxInsider. "We can't pay a large licensing fee, and we needed a free alternative. Fortunately, Google stepped in with a free and open alternative."

Whither WebM?

Despite support for VP8 from several companies, Google may initially find it difficult to take on H.264.

"Unfortunately, VP8 isn't as good as H.264, and Apple is aggressively against it, which could be problematic given the heavy shadow Apple casts on this space," Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group, told LinuxInsider.

However, support from Microsoft may mitigate Google's problems a bit.

"Microsoft has announced that it will build support for VP8 into Internet Explorer 9," Enderle said.

Hansel and Gretel

Rumors that Google's next version of Android will be named "Gingerbread" have been circulating on the blogosphere for months, but up until now Google has refrained from commenting on them officially.

With the unveiling of the WebM codec Thursday, Google announced that Gingerbread is scheduled for release in the fourth quarter and that this version of the operating system will support WebM.

"We expect many other Google products to adopt WebM and VP8 as they prioritize it with their other product requirements," reads Google's WebM FAQ.

VP8 is the video codec Google acquired when it bought On2 Technologies last year. It's used to compress video streams in WebM files.


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