Ever since we broke the news earlier this week that Google is going to open source its VP8 video codec at its Google i/O event next month, speculations have been abounded as to what this means for Ogg Theora, the video codec of choice of open source advocates and free software developers alike.
Theora is currently supported by the Mozilla foundation, whose Firefox browser utilizes the format instead of H.246 for HTML5 video playback, and the Wikimedia foundation, which is planing to use the codec for its upcoming Wikipedia video roll-out. However, Google and others have been skeptical of Theora. So is Google going to kill Ogg Theora by open sourcing a superior video codec?
Talk about Theora and VP8, and there’s no way to avoid a little lesson in video codec genealogy: Ogg Theora is based on an erstwhile proprietary video codec called VP3.2, which was developed by a little company called On2 Technologies. On2 introduced VP3.2 in August of 2000, originally with the idea in mind to optimize TV quality video broadcasts for users with as little bandwidth as 200kbps. On2 released a successor dubbed VP4 less than a year later and announced in August of 2001 to open source VP3.2. It took a little more back and forth between open source advocates and the company, but eventually, VP3.2 became Ogg Theora. On2 meanwhile continued to develop new codecs, reaching its 8th generation with VP8, which was announced in September of 2008.
Long story short: VP8 came out eight years after VP3.2, eight years in which much happened in the online video world. Consumers got increasingly faster broadband connections, video hosting sites moved towards HD, and codec developers figured out a whole lotta tricks to improve things like HD streaming. That’s why some have been concerned that Theora isn’t up to competing with H.264 for online video. One of the most prominent skeptics is Google’s Open Source Programs Manager Chris DiBona, who said last year that it would need “substantive codec improvements” before Theora could power a site like YouTube.
Others have been more optimistic about Theora. Wikipedia has started to host Theora files, and Wikimedia Foundation head of Communication Jay Walsh told me in January that the site plans a wider roll-out of video based on the format in the near future. I caught up with him this week to see how these plans are affected by Google open sourcing VP8, and he said that his organization would be open to host multiple open video formats, just as it is now supporting a number of patent-free image formats. “Ultimately this isn’t so much about switching formats as it is about making more options available for more web users”, he added.
Ben Moskowitz from the Open Video Alliance echoed this sentiment, proclaiming: “Theora is here to stay.” He added that Firefox and Chrome would likely support VP8 as well as Theora, but was also enthusiastic about VP8’s potential. “A royalty-free codec that’s indisputably superior to H.264 will be very disruptive,” Moskowitz said.
The most revealing answer I received about Theora’s future came however from Christopher “Monty” Montgomery, the founder of the Xiph.org Foundation, which is the driving force behind Theora. Montgomery told me that he couldn’t specifically comment on our article, only to state: “I think it’s important to repeat that we think open sourcing VP8 is a great thing, a big deal,
and we’re all for it.” And asked by someone on a Xiph.org mailing list whether the news meant “an end for Theora,” Montgomery replied: “Maybe. Unlikely.”
Montgomery is right. It’s unlikely that open sourcing VP8 is going to kill Theora. There will still be a small but dedicated community supporting the format, and there are going to be cases when it actually makes sense to use Theora and not VP8. What it will kill however, is the notion that Theora could one day become the standard of the HTML5 video web. For that, it would need to be a codec that’s superior to existing commercial solutions, and Theora just never was up to that challenge.
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