The latest from Microsoft: IE9 will support VP8, but only if you install the codec.

In its HTML5 support, IE9 will support playback of H.264 video as well as VP8 video when the user has installed a VP8 codec on Windows.

This is a less-than-ringing endorsement of VP8 when read in the context of the whole blog post:

Another Follow-up on HTML5 Video in IE9 [The Windows Blog]

Blogger Dean Hachamovitch goes on to talk about how great it is that H.264 has wide hardware support, how codecs can contain security risks, how sites should consider the difficulties of supporting multiple formats, how Microsoft has technical hurdles, and at some length about the dangers of intellectual property liability.

No mention is made in any of these points of VP8, or what it means to support a codec through a DirectShow filter rather than natively bundled in-box with IE9.

In short, the translation is: “Yes, we’ll support VP8 if you install it yourself. Did we mention how great H.264 is? And, hey, isn’t that a lawyer standing over you … right … now?”

Maybe Dean was trying to avoid over-promising. It’s clear from the “significant amount of support and suggestions” regarding Microsoft’s past H.264 commitment that the company is getting an earful about what people want from video support. But the only real commitment here is that IE9 is supporting VP8 via manually-installed DirectShow plug-in with its HTML5 implementation. The post says nothing positive about VP8 and a fair amount of implied negativity about performance, reliability, security, maturity, and patent liability.

That’s either a little fear, uncertainty, and doubt, or it’s just early days and Microsoft isn’t ready to commit to anything yet.

Remaining questions: did Google make ample efforts to reach out to Microsoft and Apple on VP8? Were they rebuked? And what will Apple’s response be? I don’t buy the conspiracy theories that Microsoft and Apple have resisted open video alternatives as part of some secret plan to restrict people to their platforms; I think they’re just protective and defensive on issues of technical and legal doubt. But Apple’s response here will be critical.

Having been enthusiastic before, here’s my bet. (Hey, I’m not a blogger if I don’t stick my neck out and make the occasional prediction.) I believe Apple will stick to its guns, citing quality and patent concerns, and say it continues to choose H.264. If Microsoft’s response is to say “yes, we support DirectShow filters,” safe money is that that translates to Apple saying “H.264 or the highway,” particularly given their previous statements. I very much hope I’m wrong.

Oh, yeah, further evidence: John “Apple mind meld” Gruber appears not to like it, pulling the most negative portions of the x264 rant out of context and then poking fun at Mozilla. (Ha, those losers. Them and their constant desire for open standards.)

Updated – via comments. As I said, I was writing this hastily and half-asleep with jetlag yesterday, but in part because I wanted to get a conversation going and see what others think. One reader thinks that indeed only VP8 may get used for the video tag, not other DirectShow filters. And in fairness, VP8 is the first real rival to H.264 for use in the video tag, even if other installed codecs were supported. So this is still a big step forward for Microsoft from saying they’ll only support H.264 and not VP8. I’m very curious to know how IE9 will handle a VP8-encoded video if H.264 isn’t available and VP8 isn’t installed. (Perhaps a helpful link to download the codec, or at least a sensible error?)

I’m still holding out hope that Apple will do something similar. At the very least, Apple has no real significant investment in H.264 per se, not in the way they do WebKit or Cocoa. (Yes, they’re a patent pool member — but that turns out not to mean a whole lot, as they still pay for the privilege; their own patent nets less than the cost of licensing the codec. And it doesn’t mean they’re strategically invested in the same way.)

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  • http://dmlandrum.noisepages.com/ Darren Landrum

    I must be bored if I'm doing all this posting on your blogs all of a sudden. :)

    Surely Google has some leverage of its own here, considering they own Youtube, and that's the site that everyone thinks of when they think "online video." That's a pretty big target for Apple and MS to try to take down, though I suppose anything's possible.

    As for having to install the codec for IE9, people are used to having to install a plug-in for Flash video anyway, so I really don't think that part is the big deal. We've seen MS's response (too cautious, perhaps?) and I think we already know what Apple's response will be (outright attacks and mudslinging). It still makes me laugh that anyone can call h.264 an open standard.

  • Steve Elbows

    Its going to take some time, all the existing h.264 content out there and the hardware decoding issues, especially on mobile platforms, make the path of h.264 competitors a steep climb even if they have the forces of openness and plenty of partners on their side.

    As long as there is progress on all the important fronts WebM stands a good chance eventually, which should be good enough as the majority of the h.264 problems are futuristic.

    Hopefully the move is accelerated by the rush to html5 rather than ending up as a mess which hampers both WebM and html5.

  • Y.

    I think you misunderstand the announcement. If I understand this correctly, while IE9 will be technically able to use DirectShow codecs, most of them will be ignored for the purposes of <video> (e.g. even if an Ogg/Theora Directshow codec exists on system, it will not be used). Only exceptions are the native H. 264 codec and (after this announcement) the VP8 Directshow codec…

  • Peter Kirn

    @Y – good point, and I think it's very possible you're reading it right. It appears that VP8 is uniquely privileged in working when installed via DirectShow plug-in.

    I still don't know why Microsoft's blogger here felt obligated to go off on the other issues; it casts doubt on VP8 but without any clear message. It's a strange, uniquely Microsoftian announcement. I understand that they might not want to come out guns blazing with a full-blown endorsement, and indeed for some of the reasons hinted at here, but what they're doing instead is muddying the waters. Why not just specify what they mean, and how the browser will behave, with a disclaimer that developers will need to make the decision about what is best for them to support? Instead, the portion of the post that is actually relevant to IE9 is vague.

  • Steve Elbows

    The vagueness is probably deliberate – they got a lot of very horrible responses on the net when they announced that their html5 vieo would be h.264 only, and followup posts did little to take away the heat. So I see this as an attempt to gain some shelter via WebM without really committing to very much and still making sure to repeat the reasons why they favour h.264.

    Ive just tried the youtube WebM tests using the appropriate firefox preview release. Quality seems ok but decoding CPU useage is disgustingly high, especially for 720p footage.  I know its early days, but this and various stuff I have been reading about issues with WebM tech spec and potential patent woes down the line make me lose enthusiasm in a hurry, or at least want to wait quite a long time before looking at this format again.

    It exists, its open and its better than Theora, all of which are good but not enough on their own for it to succeed.

    Fairly unsurprisingly it appears to be quite inappropriate as a high-performance realtime playback codec, but then again neither is H264, unless there are any VJing apps that do hardware decoding of h.264.

  • http://darknoon.com/blog/ Andrew Pouliot

    Apple does have a lot invested in H.264, but not because of patents. Certainly they prefer the patent certainty on H.264 to the ambiguity of Theora and now VP8, but the real question is hardware support.

    Apple cares enormously about hardware support, because they're switching their business to be much more focused on devices running limited processors and on batter power.

    Thus, to support H.264 in a general sense, that is to say across their platforms they would need the following:

    Laptop video card support for VP8. This is probably possible as a driver update, but would require more effort. Software decode would work, but be inferior in battery life and heat to H.264.

    A new rev of all of their mobile devices that includes more silicon to support VP8 video decode. Developing this would take time, then additional time to roll it out to iPod touch, iPad, and iPhone.

    To wait until all of the H.264 devices were obsoleted and they didn't need to support them. Software decode is just not an option on an iPhone or iPod touch, and a bad idea on an iPad.

    Then we see that the video quality isn't as good or at least not better than H.264, so why on earth would they want to support it? I say we stick with H.264, because it's practical now, not in some future land where all of the video processors support it.

  • Y.

    @Peter Kim:

    Why would microsoft's blogger write about "how great it is that H.264 has wide hardware support, how codecs can contain security risks", etc.? Well, my reading (and I could be wrong here) is that once they've allowed one DirectShow codec, MS feels obligated to explain why other codecs aren't allowed. Microsoft is telling in an indirect manner that they're pleased with the current video solution, and that allowing other codecs has risks and requires work from Microsoft which they're not willing to invest.

  • Peter Kirn

    @Y. – okay, now that you say that, I can read it that way. It still leaves the VP8 mention murky. Oh, well, the main question remains Apple's reality, not Microsoft's intentions.

  • Peter Kirn

    And, yup, exactly what I predicted from Apple. I guess this is the thing. Had we gotten a real endorsement of some kind from Microsoft – or if there's still some chance they clarify their position – it'd put Apple in a position in which it was a bit tougher for them to ignore the format. I think this is basically a waiting game now.

  • Tim Boundy

    All these comments seem to assume that DirectShow will be used and that the default H.264 codec is a DirectShow codec. As I understand it, the main reason IE9 won't work on XP is because IE9 uses Media Foundation instead of DirectShow. As for trying to explain why they will only allow certain codecs? They could always use the Protected Media Path to prevent any generic 3rd party Media Foundation codec from being used as it needs to be blessed, and claim it is due to security or licencing restrictions.