VP8/WebM: Adobe is the key to open video on the Web

Google have today announced the open sourcing of VP8 and the creation of a new media format WebM.

Technical Challenges

As I predicted earlier, Google had to match VP8 with an audio codec and a container format – their choice was a subpart of the Matroska format and the Vorbis codec. To complete the technical toolset, Google have:

  • developed ffmpeg patches, so an open source encoding tool for WebM will be available
  • developed GStreamer and DirectShow plugins, so players that build on these frameworks will be able to decode WebM,
  • and developed an SDK such that commercial partners can implement support for WebM in their products.

This has already been successful and several commercial software products are already providing support for WebM.

Google haven’t forgotten the mobile space either – a bunch of Hardware providers are listed as supporters on the WebM site and it can be expected that developments have started.

The speed of development of software and hardware around WebM is amazing. Google have done an amazing job at making sure the technology matures quickly – both through their own developments and by getting a substantial number of partners included. That’s just the advantage of being Google rather than a Xiph, but still an amazing achievement.

Browsers

As was to be expected, Google managed to get all the browser vendors that are keen to support open video to also support WebM: Chrome, Firefox and Opera all have come out with special builds today that support WebM. Nice work!

What is more interesting, though, is that Microsoft actually announced that they will support WebM in future builds of IE9 – not out of the box, but on systems where the codec is already installed. Technically, that is be the same situation as it will be for Theora, but the difference in tone is amazing: in this blog post, any codec apart from H.264 was condemned and rejected, but the blog post about WebM is rather positive. It signals that Microsoft recognize the patent risk, but don’t want to be perceived of standing in the way of WebM’s uptake.

Apple have not yet made an announcement, but since it is not on the list of supporters and since all their devices exclusively support H.264 it stands to expect that they will not be keen to pick up WebM.

Publishers

What is also amazing is that Google have already achieved support for WebM by several content providers. The first of these is, naturally, YouTube, which is offering a subset of its collection also in the WebM format and they are continuing to transcode their whole collection. Google also has Brightcov, Ooyala, and Kaltura on their list of supporters, so content will emerge rapidly.

Uptake

So, where do we stand with respect to a open video format on the Web that could even become the baseline codec format for HTML5? It’s all about uptake – if a substantial enough ecosystem supports WebM, it has all chances of becoming a baseline codec format – and that would be a good thing for the Web.

And this is exactly where I have the most respect for Google. The main challenge in getting uptake is in getting the codec into the hands of all people on the Internet. This, in particular, includes people working on Windows with IE, which is still the largest browser from a market share point of view. Since Google could not realistically expect Microsoft to implement WebM support into IE9 natively, they have found a much better partner that will be able to make it happen – and not just on Windows, but on many platforms.

Yes, I believe Adobe is the key to creating uptake for WebM – and this is admittedly something I have completely overlooked previously. Adobe has its Flash plugin installed on more than 90% of all browsers. Most of their users will upgrade to a new version very soon after it is released. And since Adobe Flash is still the de-facto standard in the market, it can roll out a new Flash plugin version that will bring WebM codec support to many many machines – in particular to Windows machines, which will in turn enable all IE9 users to use WebM.

Why would Adobe do this and thus cement its Flash plugin’s replacement for video use by HTML5 video? It does indeed sound ironic that the current market leader in online video technology will be the key to creating an open alternative. But it makes a lot of sense to Adobe if you think about it.

Adobe has itself no substantial standing in codec technology and has traditionally always had to license codecs. Adobe will be keen to move to a free codec of sufficient quality to replace H.264. Also, Adobe doesn’t earn anything from the Flash plugins themselves – their source of income are their authoring tools. All they will need to do to succeed in a HTML5 WebM video world is implement support for WebM and HTML5 video publishing in their tools. They will continue to be the best tools for authoring rich internet applications, even if these applications are now published in a different format.

Finally, in the current hostile space between Apple and Adobe related to the refusal of Apple to allow Flash onto its devices, this may be the most genius means of Adobe at getting back at them. Right now, it looks as though the only company that will be left standing on the H.264-only front and outside the open WebM community will be Apple. Maybe implementing support for Theora wouldn’t have been such a bad alternative for Apple. But now we are getting a new open video format and it will be of better quality and supported on hardware. This is exciting.

IP situation

I cannot, however, finish this blog post on a positive note alone. After reading the review of VP8 by a x.264 developer, it seems possible that VP8 is infringing on patents that are outside the patent collection that Google has built up in codecs. Maybe Google have calculated with the possibility of a patent suit and put money away for it, but Google certainly haven’t provided indemnification to everyone else out there. It is a tribute to Google’s achievement that given a perceived patent threat – which has been the main inhibitor of uptake of Theora – they have achieved such an uptake and industry support around VP8. Hopefully their patent analysis is sound and VP8 is indeed a safe choice.

UPDATE (22nd May): After having thought about patents and the situation for VP8 a bit more, I believe the threat is really minimal. You should also read these thoughts of a Gnome developer, these of a Debian developer and the emails on the Theora mailing list.