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 for Flash, Microsoft for Silverlight, and Apple for its streaming and downloadable video files. For HTML5 video, H.264 also has been adopted by Google’s 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,” Encoding.com 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)

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