Tag Archives: Open Source

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.


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.


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.


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.

Accessibility support in Ogg and liboggplay

At the recent FOMS/LCA in Wellington, New Zealand, we talked a lot about how Ogg could support accessibility. Technically, this means support for multiple text tracks (subtitles/captions), multiple audio tracks (audio descriptions parallel to main audio track), and multiple video tracks (sign language video parallel to main video track).

Creating multitrack Ogg files
The creation of multitrack Ogg files is already possible using one of the muxing applications, e.g. oggz-merge. For example, I have my own little collection of multitrack Ogg files at http://annodex.net/~silvia/itext/elephants_dream/multitrack/. But then you are stranded with files that no player will play back.

Multitrack Ogg in Players
As Ogg is now being used in multiple Web browsers in the new HTML5 media formats, there are in particular requirements for accessibility support for the hard-of-hearing and vision-impaired. Either multitrack Ogg needs to become more of a common case, or the association of external media files that provide synchronised accessibility data (captions, audio descriptions, sign language) to the main media file needs to become a standard in HTML5.

As it turn out, both these approaches are being considered and worked on in the W3C. Accessibility data that are audio or video tracks will in the near future have to come out of the media resource itself, but captions and other text tracks will also be available from external associated elements.

The availability of internal accessibility tracks in Ogg is a new use case – something Ogg has been ready to do, but has not gone into common usage. MPEG files on the other hand have for a long time been used with internal accessibility tracks and thus frameworks and players are in place to decode such tracks and do something sensible with them. This is not so much the case for Ogg.

For example, a current VLC build installed on Windows will display captions, because Ogg Kate support is activated. A current VLC build on any other platform, however, has Ogg Kate support deactivated in the build, so captions won’t display. This will hopefully change soon, but we have to look also beyond players and into media frameworks – in particular those that are being used by the browser vendors to provide Ogg support.

Multitrack Ogg in Browsers
Hopefully gstreamer (which is what Opera uses for Ogg support) and ffmpeg (which is what Chrome uses for Ogg support) will expose all available tracks to the browser so they can expose them to the user for turning on and off. Incidentally, a multitrack media JavaScript API is in development in the W3C HTML5 Accessibility Task Force for allowing such control.

The current version of Firefox uses liboggplay for Ogg support, but liboggplay’s multitrack support has been sketchy this far. So, Viktor Gal – the liboggplay maintainer – and I sat down at FOMS/LCA to discuss this and Viktor developed some patches to make the demo player in the liboggplay package, the glut-player, support the accessibility use cases.

I applied Viktor’s patch to my local copy of liboggplay and I am very excited to show you the screencast of glut-player playing back a video file with an audio description track and an English caption track all in sync:


Further developments
There are still important questions open: for example, how will a player know that an audio description track is to be played together with the main audio track, but a dub track (e.g. a German dub for an English video) is to be played as an alternative. Such metadata for the tracks is something that Ogg is still missing, but that Ogg can be extended with fairly easily through the use of the Skeleton track. It is something the Xiph community is now working on.

This is great progress towards accessibility support in Ogg and therefore in Web browsers. And there is more to come soon.

FOMS and LCA Multimedia Miniconf

If you haven’t proposed a presentation yet, got ahead and register yourself for:

FOMS (Foundations of Open Media Software workshop) at

LCA Multimedia Miniconf at

It’s already November and there’s only Christmas between now and the conferences!

I’m personally hoping for many discussions about HTML5 <video> and <audio>, including what to do with multitrack files, with cue ranges, and captions. These should also be relevant to other open media frameworks – e.g. how should we all handle multitrack sign language tracks?

But there are heaps of other topics to discuss and anyone doing any work with open media software will find a fruitful discussions at FOMS.

“Venuturous Australia” at Pearcey awards event

Yesterday was a long and fascinating day of discussions about innovation in Australia.

At this year’s Pearcey Medal and NSW Pearcey State Award event, the focus was on the recently released innovation report from Terry Cutler with a focus on the effects on ICT (Information and Communication Technology).

If you only look at the summary report, you will miss the structure of the full report, which is why I have outlined it here:

  • Chapter 1 stalling not sprinting
  • Chapter 2 the national innovation system
  • Chapter 3 innovation in business
  • Chapter 4 the case for a public role in innovation
  • Chapter 5 strengthening people and skills
  • Chapter 6 building excellence in national research
  • Chapter 7 information and market design
  • Chapter 8 tax and innovation
  • Chapter 9 market facing programs
  • Chapter 10 innovation in government
  • Chapter 11 national priorities for innovation
  • Chapter 12 governance of the innovation system

I took home a few very interesting observations from reading the reports and from the discussions at the Pearcey event.

But before I can comment, I have to state which organisations I see as ICT innovators in Australia.

  • The government-funded ones are the Universities, NICTA and CSIRO (CRCs fall in the same general class).
  • The big drivers of transforming new research outcomes into business are start-ups and the SMEs.
  • Further innovation happens in large companies and multi-nationals with a stronger focus on incremental innovation rather than disruptive innovation.
  • In ICT, we need to add another big driver of innovation: open source software. I’ll explain this later in more depth.

The following observations on VenturousAustralia and what I took away from the Pearcey awards are on these topics:

  1. Support of fundamental R&D in ICT
  2. Commercialisation of ICT innovation
  3. Enabling SMEs to succeed
  4. Regard for the contribution of Open Source

TOPIC: ICT and innovation

At the Pearcey awards, we had long discussions about whether ICT was appropriately represented in the report and whether the recommendations are pushing ICT further into a supportive role while missing our opportunities to innovate and lead in core ICT.

It is generally accepted that ICT has a major effect on the productivity increase of almost all Australian industries. DCITA reports show that in service industries, between 35 and 65 per cent of productivity growth is estimated to have been driven by technological factors