Adobe Flash has been the de-facto standard for video playback for many years. This is contrary to the open standards based evolutionary process the web has undergone mostly: Relying on a (more or less) proprietary software module to provide one of today’s web’s core features is as much a pain as it is awkward for the very open internet ecosystem. This situation has caused some amount of resentment against Adobe’s Flash technology for quite some time now and culminated in Steve Jobs’ very clear announcement not to provide support for Flash content on their iPad – much like they did with the iPhone. But now the web is about to catch up with reality and HTML5 will support video playback directly in your browser without any plugins! Well, almost…
While in theory the advent of a standards based interface for websites to embed audio and video content can only be appreciated, there are some challenges for the emerging HTML5 video support introduced by (how else could it be?) third party interests. The story goes about as follows: During discussions in the WHATWG no consensus on which codecs to require for HTML5 compliance was found. The big candidates were the free (as in open) Ogg Theora codec and the proprietary H.264 (a.k.a. MPEG-4 AVC). The reasons for the missing consensus are plenty…
The non-profit and open-source browser fraction (e.g. Mozilla Firefox, KDE’s Konqueror) obviously has to prefer the free Ogg Theora option over using closed codecs and paying license fees for them. On the other (H.264) side of the table there’s hardware manufacturers like Apple and Nokia that prefer it because it’s easier to implement in silicon and more efficient at runtime. They also don’t care about a small licensing fee because clearly they can compensate for that by adding that to their products’ retail price. Google for on the other hand already invested in H.264 for their YouTube platform and won’t consider migrating to a less efficient transport there. So we do have a real clash of interests with some major players in the game and no notion of a common solution on the horizon. Or do we?
The Google solution?
It turns out Google recently bought a company named On2 that happens to own a number of pretty efficient video codecs amongst which VP8 seems to be a suitable H.264 killer. Now one might ask himself what a search engine big player like Google might want with a company that specialized in video compression. The answer is rather obvious: Google owns YouTube and they serve a hell of a lot of video content. And they are clearly interested in that their content can be viewed on as many platforms as possible. So the interesting question that rises is: What are they going to do with their newly acquired technology? The Free Software Foundation has a very compelling answer: “Free VP8, and use it on YouTube!”
And indeed that would solve a whole bunch of problems for everyone (except the H.264 stakeholders of course). VP8 could be a reasonably efficient alternative for Google to use it on its YouTube platform. Having it open sourced would convince Mozilla to integrate it into their browsers in under a second. And those companies that now pay licensing fees to the MPEGLA that handles the patent pool around the closed codec. Let alone the “do no evil” bonus for Google who recently got some bad news for their StreetView and Buzz services…
So let’s hope Google does the “no evil” thing and opens up VP8 for the good of everyone!