Google open-sourcing VP8 video may change Internet video forever

For a while now, Internet video was simple. You used Adobe Flash, with its 95% plus market share, and that was that. Then things changed. The next Web standard, HTML 5, came along, but it didn't spell out that Flash or anything else would be the video codec standard. Then, Apple refused to have anything to do with Flash on its 'i' family of devices. Now it seems Google may be open-sourcing the VP8 video codec. Internet video is about to get a lot more complicated.

Ryan Lawler reported in NewTeeVee that multiple sources have told him Google will be open-sourcing its VP8 video codec. This is a high-performance video compression codec that its creators claim requires relatively little processor power to decode and display, even at HDTV quality. Google acquired this technology when it bought On2 Technologies, a video codec and publishing company, in February 2010.

According to Lawler, Google will "officially announce the release at its Google I/O developers' conference [in May], a source with knowledge of the announcement said. And with that release, Mozilla -- maker of the Firefox browser -- and Google Chrome are expected to also announce support for HTML5 video playback using the new open codec."

Officially, Google's not saying if they're really going to do it. A Google spokesperson told me, "We're excited to be working with the On2 team to continue to improve the video experience on the web, but we have nothing to announce at this time." I'm willing to bet though that Lawler is right and that Google is going to open up VP8.

So why is this important? While fans of Apple and open source may not care for Flash, there's already H.264, which is used in Apple QuickTime; Ogg Theora, the open-source favorite; and Microsoft's Silverlight as alternatives. Flash, Silverlight, and Apple's video technologies all have proprietary elements to them, which make them less than ideal to some Web video producers and users.

H.264 and Ogg Theora aren't tied to one company, but they have problems as well. H.264 is covered by proprietary patents. Even though its owner, MPEG LA, has said it will let Web browser companies use H.264 without playing any royalties until 2016, Web browser vendors such as Mozilla are still wary of it. There are also patent concerns about Ogg Theora.

But if VP8 were opened up, it might be free of patent, royalty payment, proprietary ownership concerns. That sounds like a win to me.

Kaltura is an open-source video company in charge of the development of the Kaltura HTML5 Video Library, which is being used to add video to Wikipedia. Kaltura senior developer Michael Dale expects Google to open-source VP8 and that it'll be used in YouTube and on the Android platform, helping VP8 get adopted quickly. Specifically, Dale sees this as being "bad news for MPEG LA's next codec, H.265, aka H.264+. While the current H.264 profiles are well-placed for the current generation of video across mobile and desktop for at least the next few years, the Google push for royalty-free codecs will eventually make it difficult for a new royalty codec to compete."

Still, Dale continued, "The possible exception is in vertical integrated markets. Principally, Apple, with its vertical integration from devices to software to content distribution, is probably the one company entity that can keep proprietary codecs around for quite some time. The other major players, Microsoft and Adobe, both have lost significant leverage."

Russell Taga, VP of engineering at Howcast, an instructional online video company, also has good things to say about VP8. Taga said, "VP8 offers good video quality and consumes considerably less bandwidth than other codecs. Assuming that Google is able to open source the VP8 codec, it could offer an alternative that will resolve the current divide between different browser vendors on support for the Ogg Theora and H.264 video codecs."

If Google is able to open source VP8, Taga continued, "This isn't good news for Adobe Flash nor Microsoft Silverlight; however, I don't think either technology will go away soon. It takes people quite a while to upgrade browsers so there will be eyeballs that companies will want to reach using older browsers that don't support HTML5."

On a more cautionary note, Marshall Eubanks, CEO of AmericaFree.TV, an Internet video Web site, commends Google's action, but thinks "VP8 is unlikely to overtake H.264 / H.265." Eubanks reasons that "It takes a long time and a lot of work to change a video codec, and H.264 is embedded in a lot of media and devices. Remember that H.264 is an open standard, but not open source. What this is likely to do is to help keep H.264 an open standard, by helping to keep the license terms for H.264 open and reasonable."

Eubanks also worries that, "Given the way the patent system works, it is foolish to think that any new video codec will not be patent-encumbered. The only real question is, do you have an idea of what the encumbrances are, or not? With H.264, you have a good idea of this, with Ogg Theora or VP8, you do not. Remember, "green-field" programming without knowledge of a patent does not save you from being patent encumbered, if you should reinvent a patented wheel. Also remember that we do not know how green-field On2 Technologies was in their programming practice. It is quite possible that even Google doesn't know how encumbered VP8 may be - like the rest of us, they will simply have to wait and find out."

Indeed, we all will have to wait and find out. But I for one am looking forward to seeing this technology roll out as open source. I strongly believe that television, computing, mobile devices and the Internet are rapidly coming together and a strong open-source, open-standard video format will go a long way to making this a smooth merger.

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