San Francisco thought Oracle’s takeover of downtown was big, well it has competition, Google came to town kicking off its largest developer conference ever. Over 5,000 people from 66 countries came to hear from 200 speakers and see 180+ developer demonstrations.
Google made a bunch of major announcements at the conference with several of them directly related to Apple’s offerings and supported standards – nothing too flashy however….
Perhaps the most anticipated was the official launch of The WebM Project, a new open-source, royalty-free video file format based on VP8, a file format from long-time video codec firm On2 Technologies, which was recently acquired by Google.
WebM not only has the significant backing of Google, which will be building support for the format into its Chrome browser and YouTube, but also Mozilla and Opera, which will be including support for it in their browsers. It is unknown at this time whether Apple will support WebM in its Safari browser, although it appears likely it will given the general acceptance of the new format. To just about everyone’s surprise, Microsoft announced they will support VP8 in IE9.
Adobe too has said it will support VP8 and surprising to some, the company says it will incorporate VP8 into Flash. We’re not all that surprised. Ever since this flash war broke out between Apple and the rest of the world, we have said that Adobe wants to sell tools and when HTML 5 arrives with video codecs decided and ship shape, Adobe will incorporate support for HTML 5 in its tools. Observers are seeing VP8 as the new front runner for HTML 5 and Adobe’s move to add VP8 to Flash is an elegant, preemptive strike.
Among the competing formats being used for video embedded in HTML5 are H.264 (backed by Apple and other companies) and Ogg Theora (backed by Mozilla.) Safari, Chrome, and other browsers support H.264 video, as will the upcoming Internet Explorer 9 while Mozilla Firefox supports only Ogg Theora video as of now.There are some serious issues concerning VP8. VP8 is a technology evolution of On Technologies original codec VP3, which was developed using Ogg Theora. Some of the controversy swirling around VP8 is that it’s quality is inferior even though it now has a strong inside track to HTML 5.
Apple prefers H.264 and the newly yakky Steve Jobs told everyone so following the Google announcement in an email that provided a link to a very critical review of WebM by a developer of yet another open source video codec x264 (based on H.264, and that’s as far into that worm hole as we’re going to go). The link is to the blog Diary of an x264 developer. In additions to questions about the format’s quality there are questions about its patent heritage apparently.
Mozilla and others have cited licensing concerns with H.264 as their rationalization for going with the free Ogg Theora format. However, MPEG-LA has said it won’t charge licensing fees for use of format for Web video until 2016; after that, it’s up to MPEG-LA to decide whether to charge for H.264 or to keep it free. (A little like your local drug dealer – here kid, first one is free…)
Free is nice, but there are concerns over Ogg Theora’s quality. Dark Shikari published an in depth and not too favorable hands on review on his blog. Jan Ozer also conducted a hands-on comparison of Ogg and H.264 and found that H.264 may result in higher quality streaming video. And Last year, Xiph’s Greg Maxwell conducted a test that focused on comparing Ogg Theora clips against h264 videos. Some of the concerns are addressed on the On2 website. B-frames, for example, are patented and therefore VP7 and VP8 use other techniques to achieve the same effect.
So, even with the WebM announcement, it ain’t over, but given Google’s weight and the potential backing from Adobe, Microsoft, and others VP8, will probably become the defacto web video codec.
The patent trolls wait in the wings.