Theora Founder: WebM Project Is ‘Wonderful’

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Google’s move to open-source its VP8 video codec as part of its WebM Project has gotten wide support from browser makers and other industry players, but the open source community was notably absent from today’s announcement, with the obvious exception of Mozilla. There was no shout-out from the Free Software Foundation, who had urged Google to open-source the codec earlier this year to kill Flash.

Instead, a smiling Adobe CTO Kevin Lynch walked on stage to announce that his company is going to ship VP8 support as part of Flash. So what do open source developers think about the move, and what’s going to happen to Ogg Theora, the current open-source video codec of choice for projects like Wikipedia?

“This is great news,” said Christopher “Monty” Montgomery, founder of the Xiph.org Foundation, when I reached him by phone right after the announcement. Montgomery is spearheading the development of Ogg Theora and is a Theora developer himself, but he called VP8 going open source “absolutely wonderful” and sounded honestly stoked about the initiative. Montgomery did mention that Google didn’t make too much of an effort to reach out to open source developers ahead of the official announcement. He was notified of the development, but many others weren’t. “We have to see how it’s going to play out in the open source community,” he told me, adding that it will be a while until VP8 will really have an impact.

So will VP8 kill Ogg Theora? “Maybe in the long run it will,” he said, but the Theora community is for now committed to its road map, and Montgomery said he doesn’t think this development will be immediately affected by VP8. He did acknowledge that Theora is about 10 years old now, adding that codecs usually have a life cycle of 20 years. Theora is based on On2’s VP3.2 codec, which was first released in 2000. There have been ongoing discussions in the open source world about whether Theora is as good as H.264, but Montgomery doesn’t think this matters anymore. “We don’t want to play catch up,” he told me. “We want to be leapfrogging.” Having an advanced codec like VP8 available would finally make this possible.

This sentiment was echoed in a blog post published by the Open Video Alliance, which has been advocating HTML5 video with open codecs for some time. “This is excellent news from Google, Mozilla, and Opera, and will help catapult web video into the next generation,” the post reads.

Florian Mueller, founder of the European NoSoftwarePatents Campaign, was a little more skeptical: “While it appears to be a nice gesture if a major player releases software on open source terms, it’s imperative to perform a well-documented patent clearance,” he wrote us in an email. He mused that HTC being sued about Android shows Google might stand on the sidelines if developers get into trouble with video patent holders, and added: “We all know Steve Jobs’ recent email in which he said a patent pool was being assembled to go after open source codecs. So the patent question is really a critical one.”

However, Montgomery didn’t share this outlook. He acknowledged that Google and other companies supporting WebM are a much bigger target than Theora’s supporters have been, but said that patent litigation around open-source video codecs isn’t any more likely after the announcement than it was before. He pointed to the fact that no one has ever tried to bring claims against Theora, but admitted that you can never say never. “Patents are like every teenager carrying a hand gun,” he told me.  Sooner or later, one of those guns could go off.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user kevindooley.

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