Google faces off against Microsoft, Apple over Web video standard

Microsoft support for new video format 'lukewarm,' says analyst; Apple is the linchpin

Mozilla and Opera Software on Wednesday backed Google's new open-source, royalty-free video format, and all three browser makers issued developer builds incorporating WebM.

One analyst bemoaned the fragmentation of standards that Google's move will bring, but still applauded the new standard. "A truly open standard is great, and Google's doing a good thing here," said Ray Valdes, an Gartner analyst who covers browsers. "But I'm not sure if Google, Mozilla and Opera can pull this off."

While Mozilla and Opera jumped on Google's bandwagon, rival Microsoft's support was lukewarm. Although it promised to support the new format, Microsoft won't deliver WebM's video codec, VP8, in its next browser, Internet Explorer 9 (IE9).

VP8 is the open-source, royalty-free video encoding-decoding technology, or codec, that WebM will use to compress and decompress digital video. Google acquired VP8 when it bought On2 Technologies in February for $125 million.

"Though video is ... now core to the Web experience, there is unfortunately no open and free video format that is on par with the leading commercial choices," said Jeremy Doig, Google's engineering director of video, and Mike Jazayeri, a group product manager with the company, in a introductory entry on the WebM project's blog .

By "commercial choices," Doig and Jazayeri meant H.264, the royalty-encumbered codec that Apple and Microsoft back for video in HTML5, the next-generation Web development language. But while large companies like Apple and Microsoft -- even Google for YouTube -- pay H.264's steep royalties, others, such as Mozilla, have refused. Both Mozilla and Opera, for example, have supported the open-source Ogg Theora codec as a free substitute for H.264.

Yesterday, the two browser makers tossed their hat into Google's ring.

"Until today, Theora was the only production-quality codec that was usable under terms appropriate for the open Web," said Mike Shaver , Mozilla's head of engineering, on the company's blog. "Now we can add another, in the form of VP8 ... a tremendous technology to have on the side of the open Web."

"We now have a great format for video," added Hakon Wium Lie , Opera's chief technology officer. "We all have video cameras in our pockets. Let's use them, let's back WebM."

Mozilla and Opera also on Wednesday released developer previews of Firefox and Opera that support WebM and VP8. Google added the new format and codec to Chromium , the open-source project that feeds into Chrome, and promised to push WebM into the browser's "dev" channel in the coming weeks.

Microsoft , meanwhile, said it would partially back WebM.

"In its HTML5 support, IE9 will support playback of H.264 video as well as VP8 video when the user has installed a VP8 codec on Windows," said Dean Hachamovitch, Microsoft's general manager for IE. In other words, Microsoft won't package Google's VP8 codec with IE9; users will have to search for and install it themselves.

"There are different kinds of support for WebM and VP8," said Valdes, "including Microsoft's lukewarm support. But Microsoft could be the one that shifts the balance. I don't know if Google, Mozilla and Opera have enough weight to counterbalance Microsoft and Apple on the other side."

"As we said recently, when it comes to HTML5, we're all in," said Hachamovitch. But he qualified that when it came to WebM and VP8. "At the same time, Windows customers, developers, and site owners also want assurances that they are protected from IP rights issues when using IE9," he continued, citing current discussions about possible patent liability issues surrounding VP8.

"There are some unknowns about patent exposure," Valdes agreed. "I think that, and a lot of other things, are going to take a very long time to resolve."

Unlike Google , Mozilla and Opera, Microsoft does not release frequent public previews of under-development browsers. Nor has Microsoft set a timetable for either a beta of IE9 or the final edition.

Apple is the only browser maker in the top five to have kept silent about WebM and VP8; the company did not respond to a request seeking comment on Thursday.

But Apple, silence and all, may be the linchpin. "The future of the Web is tied to the future of the mobile Web," explained Valdes, "and Apple, with its iPhone and iPad , is the player in mobile."

And even if Apple gets on board, Valdes isn't sure whether the new format and codec will ultimately benefit to the Web. "One of the things that's standing in the way of evolving the Web to the next generation is the multiple video formats," he said. "Ten years ago, there was much fragmentation -- RealPlayer, QuickTime, Windows Media -- but Flash video came around and became the de facto standard. That's what moved the Web forward.

"Now it looks like fragmentation is back," Valdes concluded. "And that may prove to be the biggest stumbling block for HTML5."

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld . Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is .

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Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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