Shifts in standards usually take place at a glacial pace. This one may have just happened overnight.
Yesterday, the future of Web audiovisual content remained murky. You could choose H.264, a format that all but locked out open source software and threatened license fees down the road. Or you could opt for Ogg Theora, a format that was open but had serious patent questions around it, one major players said outright they wouldn’t support. Apple artificially emphasized choosing between Flash and the “open Web” – a misleading and false argument, especially since a common means of decoding H.264, by necessity, would become Flash.
Today, the landscape is different. If Google is a hundred-ton gorilla, it just took a belly flop of a dive into the debate at its Google I/O conference:
Initial, jet-lagged impressions, at least fed by my previous conversations with folks from the open video community:
VP8 video is really, truly open – free is in beer, freedom, standards, whatever. VP8 is a high-quality video codec, the newer generation of the codec incorporated in Flash. Yes, yes, H.264 can argue high quality – but it tends to be costly at both the decode and encode stage, at least with all the stops pulled. VP8 at least claims to be heavily optimized for this kind of delivery, and its new open licensing suggests the situation may only get better (see also: hardware partners below). That’s not “open” not with quotation marks around it, accompanied by some lengthy rationalization about the exact shades of meaning the word open can have penned by someone from a big company whose name begins with the letter “A.” (Either of them.) It’s open as in BSD-licensed, free, go build software that encodes or decodes it, go use it without fear of license fees today or a few years down the road. As for patent liability, anyone wanting to argue with this format will have to go toe-to-toe with half the industry, not to mention Google’s newly-expanded portfolio and deep-as-ever pockets and legal department.
WebM is open, top to bottom. Want audio, too? Try Ogg Vorbis, an excellent, efficient format free of the licensing requirements of MP3. Want a container format? That’s free and open, too, courtesy the WebM container, itself built on an excellent, open, extensible container already in use (Matroska MKV/MKA/MKS). Free source code? Check. Free encoding tools? Check.
…. with all the trimmings. Oh, you’re using FFMPEG (as do a number of VJ tools)? A patch for FFMPEG on any OS adds WebM support. Use Windows? DirectShow filters are ready. Parameters for encoding successful video in various use cases? Good God, man, these guys don’t mess around. The only thing missing right now according to Google is GStreamer support, but that’s coming soon, meaning I’ll soon even be using this format in Processing. You can even encode on the Web, with the commercial Zencoder product.
Updated – GStreamer support! WebM + GStreamer
And it’s got a posse. Sorenson Squish supports it. Google Chrome is onboard, but so are Firefox and Opera. YouTube has support via its HTML5 test, right now, today. Huge commercial video tool Brightcove, chipmakers ARM, NVIDIA, and TI, and many others (even Skype) are behind the format, too.
Adobe’s just fine, thanks for asking. Adobe is also listed as a partner. Expect full-blown Flash support, and robust encoding tools, too, I’d wager.
Who’s missing? Microsoft and Apple. Microsoft is already rumored to be supporting WebM and VP8 in IE9. Updated – Microsoft’s “all in” on HTML5, and supports VP8 – if you install the codec. The response is more than a bit tepid, but it doesn’t block people from using VP8.
Apple, your move. If you want an open Web, it’s just arrived. And since I hear Apple’s own H.264 patent stake is painfully small — and even bigger stakeholders spend more than they take in — I expect Apple to join in, too.
If it helps, Starbucks has unveiled new custom Frappuccinos, so maybe Eric and Steve can work out the final missing piece in the future of Internet video over a nice Venti or two. Go ahead, add whipped cream — the Internet has waited for this a long time. Treat yourself.
http://openvideoalliance.org/ has more informed analysis, as opposed to me; I just got off a transatlantic flight. And I expect they’re very happy indeed.
More coverage of how these formats work, and whether they’ll work for live visuals and not just video distribution online, soon — comments welcome.
Well, you know with something as sophisticated as video codecs, it can’t all be bad news. This analysis suggests some of the potential pitfalls:
[Diary Of An x264 Developer]
That’s just the sort of dose of reality I’d hope video developers and open video advocates wade through over the coming weeks, now that this announcement is formal and public. I expect such frank criticism may in turn be met with a defense of Google’s (and On2′s) choices, and development improvements in the long haul – and that’s healthy and necessary.
In short, the author, Jason Garrett-Glaser, “the current primary x264 developer and also an ffmpeg developer,” has some harsh criticisms for VP8 in terms of potential for patent liability, quality, and speed, though his thoughts are not without caveats and potential for improvement. The container format and audio codec, by contrast, are no-brainers.
It could be the jetlag, but my gut reaction remains: I think this is still big news, partly because of the number of partners Google appears in their corner – especially in terms of browsers. If either Microsoft or Apple joins, it seems like it’s a done deal, because it’s unlikely a lone browser developer would want to stand up against all the competition and YouTube. Apple in particular, having resisted even support for Ogg Vorbis on patent grounds (which, unlike Theora, seems to be a stretch), could rebel, though. In fact, if Apple makes the assessment that VP8 shares Theora’s performance, patent liability, and quality challenges, it’s hard to imagine Apple not protesting the move.
Patent liability still must be tested in the real world. I expect a full analysis from our friend Nilay Patel at Engadget who actually has an IP background. I don’t, so I’m going to just shut up now before I say something I regret.
But VP8 itself is not news. You can read On2′s previous claims about its awesomeness, whether you believe those claims or not. (Hint: encoding settings are everything.)
I certainly stand by the other aspects of my analysis, based on the previous contact I’ve had with some of the parties involved: don’t underestimate the will of these partners to find a solution, or the potential sway they can bring to the market here. Just having these browsers and YouTube and the code available today is already a major step.
If I’m wrong, I’ll make it up to you by posting a glitched-out video of me crumbling into little compression artifacts, crying about how I was made a fool. So, either way, you have a win-win situation.