Blog Post

Could an Open Source VP8 Overtake H.264?

With the news that Google plans to open source On2’s VP8 codec next month, there’s been a lot of talk about whether or not it can emerge as the “one codec to rule them all,” as my colleague Stacey Higginbotham tweeted just a few days ago. Certainly an open source VP8 may go a long way toward making Ogg Theora, a competing open source codec that also sprung from On2 technology, obsolete. But questions remain about whether VP8 will be adopted outside the open source community, and whether or not it can compete with H.264, which has become the de facto industry standard for web video encoding.

The good news is that VP8 is a huge step forward from Ogg Theora, which was spawned from a codec On2 developed nearly a decade ago to package web video for for users with as little bandwidth as 200kbps. In terms of quality, Theora provided little competition for H.264, which is supported by Adobe (s ADBE) for Flash, Microsoft for (s MSFT) Silverlight, and Apple (s AAPL) for its streaming and downloadable video files. For HTML5 video, H.264 also has been adopted by Google’s (s GOOG) Chrome browser, Apple Safari, and will be supported by the latest version of Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, IE9. There’s just one problem: H.264 is the property of license holder MPEG LA, which spooks open source advocates like the Mozilla Foundation — maker of the Firefox web browser.

For the open source crowd, VP8 provides a viable alternative to Ogg Theora and H.264; once Google releases it to the public, it will combine quality that is comparable to H.264 with the openness that companies like Mozilla desire. Sam Blackman, CEO of encoding firm Elemental Technologies, wrote in an email that VP8 “is certainly a reasonably good codec that is on par with H.264. I think it will see immediate adoption in PC browsers and is absolutely going to help HTML5 get traction faster.”

While it’s likely that an open VP8 will replace Ogg Theora for open source advocates like Mozilla and the Wikimedia Foundation, the question of whether it can unseat H.264 as the default codec for the broader web video industry remains to be seen. A lot will depend on how much browser adoption VP8 receives; while Google Chrome and Firefox are expected to be on board, adding VP8 support for HTML5 video on Microsoft’s Internet Explorer and Apple’s Safari seem less likely.

And few in the industry will be ready to adopt VP8 unless it gains serious traction among browser vendors. That’s because, without support from Microsoft and Apple, there’s little value in re-encoding their H.264 video libraries to support a codec that can be viewed by a limited number of browsers — basically the same issue that is faced by Ogg Theora today. “This is a great move by Google to control their own destiny,” COO Jeff Malkin wrote in an email. However, he warned: “whether or not Chrome gains acceptance, and therefore VP8, [it’s] too early to tell.”

Then there’s the issue of device support, which H.264 has a big head start in. As Blackman points out, there are already a number of devices that have H.264 encoding built in. To become viable, VP8 will have to find ways to reach the device market — and fast. Blackman writes: “H.264 is deeply entrenched as the standard hardware-based decoder in all sorts of embedded devices (mobile phones, iPod, iPad, Roku, Boxee, game machines etc). It will take a long time for a “new” format like VP8 to be designed in to all these types of devices – the chips need to be refreshed, then all the firmware, software, etc.”

As a result, Blackman, like many of the executives I spoke with, believe that VP8 and H.264 will coexist “for a very long time.” That could be bad news for publishers, who wish to see a single codec prevail, and bad news for HTML5 adoption, if the industry can’t settle on a standard form of delivery.

Related content on NewTeeVee:

Google to Open-source VP8 for HTML5 Video

Did Google Just Kill Ogg Theora?

Related content on GigaOM Pro:

What Does the Future Hold For Browsers? (subscription required)

10 Responses to “Could an Open Source VP8 Overtake H.264?”

  1. I do agree that H.264 and VP8 will co-exist for some time and the mere presence
    of VP8 will thwart MPEG-LA/H.264 efforts to implement a licensing toll booth
    on Internet video, just as .png closed the door the UniSys attempt to tollbooth
    with the .gif format.

    One solution that is likely to occur is transcoding , which while not practical with the ancient VP3 codec ,is much a more reasonable proposition with VP8.

    The HTML5 video element (tag) being able to specify multiple sources will
    make co-existence of the two CODECS acceptable.

    It is also my opinion that the submarine patent issue won’t have that much traction, although I’m sure that some would try to raise the submarine patent
    issue on a cheese sandwich if they thought they could get some obstructionist or patent portfolio value out of it (sorta like Microsoft suing Linux)
    In either case , this too shall pass.

    The biggest benefits to the open sourcing of VP8 to me would be the instant
    momentum HTML5 will gain in adoption and an effective defense against
    corporate toll-boothing of video.

    The hardware makers should be pretty happy as it gives them another bullet item for the sales brochure of their next product release that is more significant than simply adding a new cup-holder.

    I’m already seeing multiple hardware devices coming out with HTML5 support
    so this is going to be an interesting 12-18 month adventure in that realm.

    If nothing else , I get to laugh at the H.264/Adobe waterboy articles for at least a couple of more months.

  2. Thierry Fautier

    This VP8 story is already old. Remember the claims in terms of Video Quality vs H.264, that no one has EVER been able to checkin dependantly.
    Second this MPEG-LA discussion which seems to be settled until 2016 for web (free) content.
    Then there is this $130M acquisition from Google, everyone was puzzled, and we start to see some more clarity. BTW there are good blogs on the subject, check this one :
    Google is clearly looking at several things : secure its encoding future and cut the cord with the Adobe/H.264 technology. This is what they have achieved with HTML5/VP8. Now in addition to that On2 had acquired Hantro an embedded Mobile phone codec company.
    On the desktop side Google will challenge Microsoft/Silverlight and Adobe/Flash with their HTML5/VP8 pair. Of course this has to be supported by the 2 enemys’ browser, if not go and download the Chrome one! As always if content is worth, people will download a new (Chrome) browswer, so expect Google to make soon a move on attractive content.
    On the TV side, we have read this Google TV rumor where Google is working with Sony on an Intel CE chip set that can decode VP8. The problem is this type of technology is (still) costly and can not compete with Roku type of device (based on H.264….
    Google anyway needs this CPU power to run its SW stack, so cost is already justified. Will this fly, well this is actually an Apple TV + apps, so I tend to think there is some value. If you put boxee SW stack on top of it, you might be close to the TV 2.0 galaxy….
    Last but not the least, the Mobile space. VP8 has been designed with ARM in mind, but more of power efficient implementations on Mobile phone use native HW acc (for H.264 for instance), so who is interested by a VP8 SW implementation, if it consumes more than an H.264 HW implentation?

    Overall, this VP8 story is for me a mixed bag, will roll out in the PC space to start with, next will be Google TV, and long term it might play on Mobile.

  3. Matthew Raymond

    I suspect the idea isn’t to dethrone H.264, but rather to pressure MPEG-LA into providing an open source friendly license. Using the one-two punch of Ogg Theora and VP8, Google can take a small but significant percentage of video codec market share away from H.264, resulting in reduced profits for MPEG-LA and its partners. The mere threat of releasing VP8 may be enough to allow Google to negotiate better licensing for the community.

    So, H.264 may be the future, just not in the way everyone thinks.

  4. Joe Nobody

    Being open source won’t matter if VP8 violates any of the patents behind h.264 that MPEG-LA controls. Anyone using VP8 will be risking a lawsuit unless Google indemnifies them.

  5. It would seem to me that MPEG LA is in a bad situation here. If they decide to charge royalties to licencees of h.264, developers could begin rejecting the codec leading to its long term demise in favor of the open source (and free) VP8 alternative. As long as they do not charge for the codec (which they’ve promised through 2016?? last I checked), the huge head start h.264 has over any other technology should ensure its continued industry leading status. So it would seem to me that they can ensure their products survival by not making any money off of it.