Google WebM and the Future of Web Video

June 7th, 2010 by Mike Wilcox

This is my first cross-post, done with the blog at my employer, BetterVideo. The original post can be found here.

BetterVideo is looking closely into the new Google WebM video codec and weighing its potential on whether it will be the web codec of the future. While it's still too early to make a determination, there are many facts available, and the WebM project is proceeding at a brisk pace.

But first, a little background on the common video terms codec and container (or wrapper, or file format). A codec is the code that handles the encoding and decoding of the images. It usually but not always includes the process for compressing the encoded data. The wrapper is the essentially the meta data file format that describes how the data is stored and gives information to your computer so that it can load the necessary libraries in which to display it. WebM and MP4 are wrappers, VP8 or H264 are codecs. This post will refer mainly to the differences between VP8 and H264.

H264 video is the most widely used video codec today because of its broad adoption in video editing software, Flash video, and hardware acceleration that exists in devices such as the iPhone. According to the BetterVideo internal studies of comparing video codecs used on the web, H264 is very capable in that it compresses (relatively) the smallest, gives the sharpest and most clear video in relation to the compression, plays large videos very smoothly without stutter of shifting of audio sync, and still looks very good in full screen or even high definition on a Blu-ray disc. VP8 is a very close second, in all categories. Among its benefits are that it plays better on older computers because it doesn't rely on the hardware acceleration.

There is one problem with H264, but it's a potentially major problem. It's not royalty free. The codec is owned by MPEG LA LLC, although many patents used in it are owned by various companies, including Microsoft and Apple. MPEG LA currently has made the codec free for end users, but this is a short term "contract". Vendors have to pay for the rights to use the codec, even those that own patents. Microsoft pays more for licensing the codec than they earn from the patents.

A familiar situation to compare the H264 situation is the ubiquitous MP3 file format. Companies that create or rely upon MP3 encoders or decoders have to pay for licensing, but the reason MP3s have been successful in their adoption is that patent holders have not enforced fees on free and open source usage. The fear is that once this H264 captures the market in a potential monopoly, they may not take the more user-friendly approach taken by MP3; they may begin collecting fees from users and or raise the vendor fees very high. This fear is not unfounded, as it happened not too long ago with the GIF fiasco, when the Unisys corporation suddenly began demanding fees for its use. JPEG also had similar collection fees demanded, though they were less known.

Because of these restrictions, the future HTML5 video has been uncertain. The specification had to be written to not include the actual codec because of the various patent issues. Consequently, browsers are using different technology. Apple's WebKit supports H264, and its been announced that Internet Explorer 9 will also support it. However, Mozilla does not have the financial backing that Safari and IE enjoys, and it is an open source project. Opera likewise does not have the financial ability, nor the desire to embrace patented technology for what they believe should be an open source web. Hence, both browsers support Ogg Theora, which unfortunately, delivers an inferior video experience.

This is where WebM comes in.

Google acquired On2 Technologies along with the VP8 video codec and shortly after have released the open source and royalty free WebM Project, meaning anyone is free to not only view videos with it, but software can be written with it without paying any licensing fees. They have not yet posted their roadmap, but Google Chrome is expected to support WebM by the end of 2010. Currently, support for WebM is under development in the following projects:

Microsoft has not pledged to completely back the project, but have said that if the user has WebM installed on their computer, Windows and Media Player will play the file. Apple has not yet made any claims of support. So WebM may not prevent the current fragmentation of web video, but it looks like it will at least move it in a positive direction. Currently BetterVideo and the rest of the community are in "wait and see" mode, as the Webm Project works on the quality of the video, and the adoption from browsers and hardware vendors take shape.

Conclusion

BetterVideo is still examining the quality of WebM. It is close to that of H264, both with pros and cons. But the real issue under investigation is whether adopting WebM would be the best result for our clients and their customers, and if it would keep them free from the downside of a potential monopoly, and if using a royalty free codec would ultimately save our clients money while still providing a high quality user experience.

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