34 Comments

Summary:

Google is making a big push behind its open source video codec, announcing today on the Chromium blog that its web browser will soon do away with support for H.264. With existing support from Firefox and Opera, that could tip the scales in favor of WebM.

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Google is throwing more weight behind its own VP8 open source video codec, announcing Tuesday on the Chromium blog that future versions of the Chrome web browser would support the WebM Project and Ogg Theora codecs, while removing support for H.264 video. The move comes as battle lines are being drawn over the formats used for delivering video over the Internet and on mobile devices.

On the blog, Google Product Manager Mike Jazayeri wrote:

“We expect even more rapid innovation in the web media platform in the coming year and are focusing our investments in those technologies that are developed and licensed based on open web principles. To that end, we are changing Chrome’s HTML5 video support to make it consistent with the codecs already supported by the open Chromium project. Specifically, we are supporting the WebM (VP8) and Theora video codecs, and will consider adding support for other high-quality open codecs in the future. Though H.264 plays an important role in video, as our goal is to enable open innovation, support for the codec will be removed and our resources directed towards completely open codec technologies.”

The decision to push VP8 in its web browser comes less than a year after Google announced that it would make the codec open source at its Google I/O developers conference in May 2010. It also sides Google’s Chrome along with Mozilla’s Firefox and the Opera web browser in embracing open standards for video delivered using the HTML5 video tag as opposed to using H.264, which is owned by licensing group MPEG LA.

With previous builds of Chrome, Google had attempted to balance the interests of the open source community along with hardware manufacturers and web publishers that had already encoded their videos in the H.264 format. But now the search and software giant has sided definitively with its own open source codec and will no longer back the format that had more or less become the industry standard for delivering video online.

Before today’s announcement, the market had been pretty evenly divided between browsers like Microsoft’s Internet Explorer and Apple’s Safari browser, which supported H.264, and the open source community, which backed Theora and WebM. But Chrome’s support of WebM and VP8 tips the scales in favor of open source codecs.

On the desktop, Google’s support of VP8 is bound to be influential, but the more difficult battle may be getting adoption on mobile and connected devices. Due to broad-based hardware support for H.264, many publisher rely on the format to reach connected TVs and mobile devices like the iPad and iPhone. But as a newer codec, hardware support for VP8 has not been widely established, which may keep Google from being able to push the format, especially on Android mobile devices.

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  1. Great. Just as we’d started to get people to move away from Flash and encode video in a pure H.264 format, Google does this.

    All this will do is halt the H.264 migration and send developers BACK to Flash, rather than triple encode in Flash, H.264 AND WebM.

    1. No such thing as encode in flash. Actually you could encode in either H264 / WebM and flash will play both

      1. Flash used to use the VP6 compression standard and then upgraded to H.264. You could just encode H.264 and VP6 and let Chrome users view the video in VP6 and everyone else in H.264. Or you could just encode H.264 and tell the Chrome users to use their existing IE or Safari browser.

    2. anon, Flash is just a delivery vehicle. The vast majority of “Flash” videos are standard h.264 files, they are just being played back via Flash Player. If anything, Flash gave h.264 a huge boost by adding support for it years ago.

      The core of this debate isn’t about Flash even though people keep trying to make it so. It’s about weighing freedom of choice against the need for a standards-based internet. If you review the myriad discussions taking place, it’s clear that everyone has different motives, concerns etc. and therefore an open, diverse internet is much more important than a standards-based one. Who is supposed be served by eliminating all options and forcing the entire internet to use a single video format? I think this entire “debate” should be flushed, let people use whatever video format they prefer, and focus on standardizing things that actually benefit from that approach, like the core features of HTML and CSS.

      1. Oops, my comment was directed at Michael Long, not anon. Sorry for the mistype.

  2. Are you kidding me? Nobody else supports WebM out of the box and it’s an inferior codec to H.264 not to mention the fact that WebM literally copied a lot of the code from H.264 projects and there’s already a patent pool forming against WebM (and VP8). Chrome isn’t close to being a market majority in the browser market.

    I’m fine with Google adding WebM support in Chrome but to eliminate H.264? When Chrome throws out H.264 support, I throw out Chrome.

    1. George, you seem to have made some serious strides since your residency at ZDNET came to an end.

      I think that the lawyers are going to hit WebM hard in the coming weeks. Google have painted a HUGE target on their back and people are taking aim.

      Google are having a hissy fit with the iPhone coming to Verizon and as that only has hardware playback of H264 and not WebM this would be the easy way to cripple it.

      And the fact they can come down on H.264 and yet not think that there is anything wrong with Adobe’s Flash is beyond comprehension. Except that Adobe’s Flash gives them a differentiator against the iPhone of course.

      So it’s going to be an interesting few months going forward. But as for me, Bye Google I am now trying to extricate everything which is Google produced from my and my families machines. Advising friends too.

      1. Also, I think VP8/WebM users are painting a huge lawsuit target on their own backs because Google doesn’t indemnify you.

      2. Google are painting a target on purpose. They’re clearly sick of whispers of “submarine” patents, and patent FUD coming out of MPEG LA.

        It’s time for the courts to decide.

    2. George, one quick correction: Both Firefox and Opera support WebM “out of the box”.

      1. Correction noted. But even if you use one of those browsers, you still don’t have any hardware acceleration support and it’s still a huge step backwards.

      2. George Ou,
        You keep making sweeping statements like “it’s a huge step backward.” But you only manage to raise two supporting arguments – some tech guy’s article and the notion that h.264 isn’t all that expensive to license.

        If you read it all, rather than seeking pull quotes that sound grim, that technical article largely concludes VP8 is similar to h.264 – better in some ways and worse in others. His final conclusion is “VP8, as a spec, should be a bit better than H.264 Baseline Profile and VC-1. It’s not even close to competitive with H.264 Main or High Profile.” Fair enough. But your mistake is failing to read between the lines and assuming technical specs are the end all be all, even though NO technology battle has been won on specs alone. HD-DVD, anyone?

        Beyond the technical specification, WebM has real world benefits that h.264 can’t touch. For example, it offers dramatically reduced average file size (30-50% in my own experience). That file size reduction alone could save content providers millions in delivery costs, and could reduce overall network congestion by 30% or more. Reducing file size by such large amounts greatly reduces the need for hardware decoding, but that’s a non-issue since Google is actively lining up hardware support for the format.

        Another major benefit is that WebM is a rebranding of the Matroska container, which means potential future support for subtitles, stereoscopic 3d, multi-language audio support, multi-angle video etc. all in one single file. H.264, on the other hand, is just a codec. While aspects of the h.264 compression scheme may be superior, WebM/VP8 could be a much more complete package and has the potential to be greatly expanded in the future, something h.264 cannot (again, it’s just a codec NOT a container).

        As for your link to a ZDNET (lol) article that claims h.264 licensing fees “aren’t that bad,” free is almost certainly better. Yes, the MPEG/LA’s current terms state that fee increases will not exceed 10% upon each review, but there is absolutely nothing stopping them from revising those terms at any time.

        You’ve also claimed that Chrome’s lack of market share means this is a bad idea for them, but you overlook the obvious ace up their sleeve – YouTube. YouTube represents 43% of all online video – for perspective, their nearest competitor is Hulu at a mere 3% – and they are actively converting their entire catalog to the WebM format as we speak. Add to this WebM’s acceptance by Firefox and Opera, and they are actually the single most influential player in the online video debate.

      3. @beenyweenies

        You’re really contradicting yourself. On the one hand you acknowledge the superior quality of H.264. Then you go on to repeat the VP8 Kool-Aid that their files can be smaller.

        Do you not understand that quality in the context of video compression is measured by quality/size? If the quality of H.264 is better, that means you can use a lower bit rate and achieve the same perceptible quality of VP8.

      4. @beenyweenies

        Do you not understand that MKV containers can hold H.264 and a number of other codecs?

      5. “You’re really contradicting yourself. On the one hand you acknowledge the superior quality of H.264. Then you go on to repeat the VP8 Kool-Aid that their files can be smaller.”

        There is no contradiction. When comparing two files that are visually equal in quality, a WebM file is typically much smaller than h.264. To date, I’ve encoded around 50 WebM videos so I’ve definitely had the opportunity to compare.

        It’s probably true that h.264 has better quality options at the high end of the scale. But 80% or more of web video doesn’t even take advantage of that, nor should it. Those higher levels are mostly suited for download delivery, such as iTunes HD Rentals, because of file size, processor load etc.

        “Do you not understand that MKV containers can hold H.264 and a number of other codecs?”

        Of course I do, I’ve been a video producer for more than a decade and have a much better grasp on these issues than most. As for your comment, it’s exactly that Flash-like flexibility that makes WebM such a good replacement for Flash video delivery. It can (but does not currently) support multiple codecs, subtitles, multi-language audio etc. and it doesn’t force anyone to use a patented, for-pay codec. The format’s myriad options means it has a future.

        Something tells me that you are not in a position to pay any royalties to the MPEG/LA should h.264 become a rigid standard, so my question is – what IS your interest in all of this? What do you have on the line that is motivating your position?

      6. @beenyweenies

        You still don’t get it. When a compression algorithm is superior, it means it’s better at a given bitrate. So at any given bitrate, H.264 mainline and advanced profiles will be superior to VP8.

      7. George,
        You write about anything and everything tech so I doubt you’re speaking from direct (or deep) experience here. How many h.264 videos have you encoded, and how many WebM videos? How long have you been working with video on the web?

        If I’m not mistaken, you have a long and storied history of FUD-oriented, sensationalist “blogging” and speaking out beyond your level of expertise. Not exactly sure why I’m debating with an armchair expert looking for blog hits.

    3. If they really did “literally copied a lot of the code from H.264 projects”, MPEG-LA would have thrown their butts in court a long time ago. The only reason that it has taken this long is because their claims may be untenable in court and may eliminate their little cartel’s money-spinner.

      1. No, you only initiate a patent suit when the abuser is making a profit because even a successful result is predicated on lost profits or the ill-gained profits of the infringer. Even when such may be the case, most, even with valid claims, would rather avoid a suit at all costs because of the time and money involved — I know this doesn’t seem consistent with our sue happy times, but really it is true.

    4. “Nobody else supports WebM out of the box”

      Chrome, Firefox and Opera all support WebM. That’s roughly 35% of the total browser market.

      “it’s an inferior codec to H.264″

      Blanket statements like this, with no supporting facts, aren’t helpful. How is it an inferior format? My first-hand experience says otherwise, so I’m curious to hear what you know on this.

      “Chrome isn’t close to being a market majority in the browser market.”

      Market majority should be completely irrelevant. If we blindly followed the choices made by the market leader, our browsers would all be reliant on Silverlight, Windows Media 9 video and would have never had decent support for web standards (including 90% of the HTML5 spec and CSS3) because IE rules the roost.

  3. I run an interactive media studio, and I think people tend to overlook a LOT of key issues. In my experience, a video encoded using webm, with a quality equivalent to h.264, is usually half or less the file size. Given that online video represents a large majority of all Internet traffic, just switching to webm could reduce global network strain by 30% or more. That’s HUGE. This is especially key given the move to mobile and provider’s unwillingness to continue offering unlimited data plans.

    There’s also the issue of patents. No one really trusts that the MPEG/LA group will keep h.264 “free” forever. No matter what you believe, it isn’t now nor ever will be free to the people who use it most, the content providers. Given the choice of paying the vig to patent holders for every video view, and using an equal quality, lower deployment cost option, which do you think they will choose?

    Those are just two issues of a dozen i could name that make webm a smart bet.

    The people who are most offended by google’s decision seem to be more interested in Apple vs. Google pissing matches than actually looking at the pros and cons.

  4. sorry my ignorance but tell me – what is the H.264 format?? I read about it on wiki, but still didn’t understand. Thanks

  5. Another Zookeeper Wednesday, January 12, 2011

    Set aside all the video that already exists in H264 format. What about all that (mobile) hardware with H264 decoders? Won’t that mean big performance differences in Chrome implementations that aren’t on the desktop? Does WebM work as well on that kit?

    You’d think with the proliferation of video in non-desktop environments would make moving to yet another format extremely difficult. Does this mean some vendors will choose another webkit browser (or roll their own) over choosing Chrome for their devices?

  6. UGH!!!

    Darn it! I am about to produce a pilot for an animated TV show that will premiere on YouTube with the goal of being picked up by a cable TV network. If I can get two advertisers, I plan to keep producing episodes for YouTube to help build buzz until a network pick-up. I have been telling the animation houses who are currently bidding on doing the pilot that it is to be formatted using mpeg4 part-10 AVC. Does this move by Google mess with that?

  7. Spalatorie Auto Thursday, January 13, 2011

    Soo i guess this means we’re stuck with IE…

    1. Never, NEVER say IE. If Chrome can heard it we all will die))) Or it just stop to work well

      1. Just think about the future without IE. Real happiness.

  8. http://www.digitalsociety.org/2011/01/google-angling-for-free-h-264-plugin/

    Google’s WebM strategy and VP8 acquisition was a masterful bluff to force the MPEG-LA to commit to an indefinite free H.264 license for free video streaming. By removing H.264 from Chrome, Google will likely get a free H.264 plugin from Microsoft the way Mozilla Firefox got a free H.264 plugin and save another $6.5M/year.

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