It’s back to square one when it comes to forming a consensus about the HTML5 video codec.
The tug-of-war over which codec would emerge as the widely supported standard shifted sides again Tuesday, when Google announced it would support WebM, the project it began last summer after it acquired codec maker On2. WebM is the codec of choice for the Chromium project, which is the open-source project behind Chrome. Mozilla’s Firefox also supports the WebM and Theora codecs.
Previously, it appeared the codec with the widest support was H.264, with backing from Apple, Google and Microsoft. However, MPEG-LA owns the intellectual property to H.264, and it charges licensing fees for content owners and software makers. So, it is neither free nor “free.”
In a blog post Tuesday, Google product manager Mike Jazayeri wrote that the company is focusing on technologies that are built and licensed in accordance with open Web principles. “To that end, we are changing Chrome’s HTML5 support to make it consistent with the codecs already supported by the open Chromium project. Specifically, we are supporting the WebM (VP8) and Theora video codecs, and will consider adding support for other high-quality open codecs in the future.
“Though H.264 plays an important role in video, as our goal is to enable open innovation, support for the codec will be removed and our resources directed towards completely open codec technologies.”
IDC program director Al Hilwa said Google’s decision most likely came down to two things: money and philosophy.
On the monetary side, Hilwa said Google “would love not to pay [MPEG-LA, a massive consortium of patent holders] licensing fees since the browser is free, and they made the investment in On2. That was not an insignificant investment. I guess Google figured that in 10 years, they would have paid as much or more to MPEG-LA in fees” as they did to acquire On2.
From a philosophical standpoint, Google wants to democratize things, Hilwa said. “They want unencumbered technology, which is an idealistic view that doesn’t square with our system of intellectual property.”
Philippe Le Hegaret, interaction domain leader at the World Wide Web Consortium, which controls the HTML5 specification, said he continues to strongly support the goal of a single royalty-free codec for HTML5. But, he cautioned, “I don’t yet know how we’ll get there.”
The options include having H.264 patent holders choose to license it royalty-free, or having WebM standardized under royalty-free terms. Le Hegaret said that all other participants in the W3C’s HTML5 Working Group have made royalty-free commitments for the specification, and he “invites those with [intellectual property rights] claims around video codecs to follow suit, and to build broad industry support at W3C for a single royalty-free codec for the Web.” As of now, HTML5 is codec-agnostic, he said, but HTML5 browsers do provide support for the HTML5 video tag.
As for WebM, Hilwa said it’s only as good as its first lawsuit. “Will they be sued for patents?” he asked. Further, will content providers such as Hulu and Netflix support an open codec, which might be easier to hack?
All this comes atop the subtext that HTML5 would be the new standard that everyone could agree upon, if they could just agree on the codec. Google’s move, Hilwa said, is a bit of a gamble. “I don’t think they know who’s going to come along” to support WebM.
For developers and content authors, the lack of a standard codec is an inconvenience, Le Hegaret said. “While there are tools to convert from one codec to another, it is computer-intensive and takes extra memory space. While this is not a major inconvenience for a five-minute-long video, it is certainly more painful for a one-hour video or more. (Such is common at universities when courses are video-recorded.)”
Meanwhile, the biggest beneficiary of the renewed HTML5 wars might be Adobe. According to Hilwa, “whenever there’s disagreement, it makes Flash stand out as the one technology that can cross all these devices and browsers.”