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.

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

  1. Prior to this, Flash was always going to be the fallback for older browsers not supporting html5.

    Now its also the fallback for browsers not supporting VP8 or WebM codec.

    Clever move by them to keep them relevant for a little while longer.

    However, i have little doubt in my mind that h.264 will continue to be the codec of choice given Apple’s support, the support for it in Chrome/Safari/IE9 and mobile devices having hardware assisted decode for it.

  2. Silvia, patents are about _details_ so the mere fact that something does something like something else, isn’t necessarily something at all.

    As we’ve pointed out before, many codec patents are exceptionally easy to work around: They specify every little detail because it makes it _much_ easier to get through the examination but doesn’t harm the patent’s ability to read on the final standard because the standard specifics exactly the patented behaviour.

    D_S, for all his undeniable H.264 experience isn’t an expert on patents or even the H.264 patents. We can assume that in cases where VP8 looks similar to H.264 those would have been exactly the cases where care was taken to differ in the right places. I’d expect the primary risks for VP8 to be anywhere _but_ there.

    There is already a lot more fear and ignorance on this subject out there

  3. Gregory, I’ve toned down the last paragraph, since I understand where you’re coming from. But I’m also not going to join into the hype of today without a word of caution – it would be wrong to ignore that situation.

    It should not create FUD though – just state that there is no substantial difference IP-wise between Theora and VP8 and therefore if people pick up VP8 (as they are), they should also pick up Theora.

  4. > Technically, that is be the same situation as it will be for Theora

    No, it won’t. Microsoft does not plan to expose all system-installed codecs via HTML5 video elements. Before today, their stance was that only H.264 would be exposed. Now it will be H.264 and VP8. The H.264 codec will also come preinstalled, but the VP8 codec won’t.

    1. Boris, I don’t actually know how Microsoft plans to implement codec support. But you may be right and things like the canPlayType will not check back with DirectShow filters, but only check for certain codecs. So, indeed, it is possibly an even stronger statement from Microsoft than I previously thought.

    1. antistress, I am honestly not a lawyer and couldn’t give you advice on that. But I believe it is not the intention of Google to stop others from developing an independent encoder or decoder codebase for VP8. I also believe there are two licenses – one for the spec and one for the VP8 source code. Maybe you have only looked at the source code license?

  5. I think that MS doesn’t want to implement VP8 support by default because of the patent provision in Vp8 license (MS is a member of MPEG LA which may contest VP8)

  6. silvia : tou’re right, there are 2 licences : one for the soft, the other for the spec… Viva Google !
    As i said on my (french) blog , if Microsoft decide to play fair for once, he could use the same license for Mono instead of their vague promise. I don’t think that MS layers are less good than Goggle layers
    My article (fr) http://libre-ouvert.toile-libre.org/?article29/
    FSF feeling on MS promise (en) http://www.fsf.org/news/2009-07-mscp-mono

    1. Hi Chris,

      Apparently they were trying to do that for Theora, too, and we never saw anything. But to be serious: MPEG-LA is in the business of making money from patent pools on open technology. They do it to anything MPEG, they even did it for VC-1. They were most certainly going to try this for Theora and VP8. The question is if they are going to find anyone to join the pool, i.e. anyone who would stand to gain something from trying to put royalties on VP8. Everyone who’s joined into the WebM hype by now will not want to take these steps and there are less every day, since everyone stands to make money from it. In the end, only the patent trolls may be left – those that don’t make money from it in another way – and then it still stands to prove if their patents actually apply. Google certainly wouldn’t join and they would be one of the most important participants in such a pool. Then there is really the question if MPEG-LA or rather those individual patent holders would be keen to take it to the next level and sue. It wouldn’t be a bad thing to get that over and done with, actually – if Google have done their homework well, that won’t be a threat to them.

      I am obviously guessing here, so don’t take my word for granted – I have no legal background. But I like to think that’s a potential scenario, and a positive one at that.

  7. Regarding the VP8 patent situation I always wonder why nobody seems to have bothered to look at the list of MPEG LA licensees in good standing for AVC/H.264. Google is there, as is On2:

    http://www.mpegla.com/main/programs/AVC/Pages/Licensees.aspx

    So both players have paid up and cannot be sued for infringing patents from the MPEG LA pool. I have not seen any assurances from Google or On2 that VP8 avoids patents from the MPEG LA pool. Anecdotes suggest the opposite. We shall be sure as soon as somebody is sued – or nobody is sued for sufficiently long…

  8. You miss my point. I am saying that On2 (and now Google) could infringe on all patents from the H.264 pool in any way they wanted. There was absolutely no need to try to work around them, since licenses had been paid anyway. So why bother and make your life harder than necessary?

    I hear people claim that On2 did due diligence in avoiding MPEG LA patents. I have seen no evidence for this. To me it looks like wishful thinking with no basis in reality. On the contrary, why should On2 have spent extra effort to avoid techniques that may help to improve their codecs faster and cheaper?

  9. Diego, I see. On2 would probably not have bothered, but Google would. They want an open codec not just for themselves, but for everyone. According to your theory, Mozilla would be exposed, but Google wouldn’t. Surely, the Mozilla lawyers analysed that risk and would not have joined had there been any.

  10. This all sounds nice and does give me a warm cozy feeling, but have you seen any statement that Google made changes to VP8 before releasing it? AFAIK this is the exact same codec that On2 originally developed.

    Again, what makes you think are based on more than just wishful thinking? Where are the assurances that no MPEG LA patents are being infringed? I have found none on the webm project homepage and I have heard none from Google.

    I’d love to see my scepticism dispelled, but so far I have seen neither evidence nor credible direct statements from the involved parties.

  11. Diego, it’s all guessing, isn’t it! ๐Ÿ™‚
    There is no confirmation that VP8 infringes on patents, nor is there confirmation that it doesn’t. Certainty is simple not possible.

    First I want to see MPEG-LA actually being successful in putting a patent portfolio together on VP8 – that will be an indication that there are interests to challenge VP8 – but that also doesn’t confirm that there actually are patents being infringed. Then the next hard indication will be an actual lawsuit – which also doesn’t confirm anything. Only if a court rules that there are actual patents infringed will we have certainty (and even then only if that court ruling is not overthrown).

    I guess we will see what happens next – MPEG-LA would need to move within a certain amount of time, so if we don’t see anything in the next year, I think it’s fairly likely they didn’t manage to locate any infringing patents.

  12. There are different kinds of guessing, Silvia.

    With Theora we had a group of people telling us that they had made a patent search and found nothing. When asked for further evidence they would respond “Just trust us.”. Then it was up to you to decide if you considered this group trustworthy enough to bet your business on their word.

    Now we are in a very similar situation, but there is not even a group of people claiming to have done research. This is hardly reassuring, especially given the facts that I outlined above – there is no indication that On2 has worked around MPEG LA patents, not even that they might have had an interest in doing so.

    Here is another hearsay anecdote: The other day a person appeared in #ffmpeg-devel whose company had licensed VP7 from On2. At some point On2 tried to sell them the upgrade to VP8. Unfortunately VP8 was considerably more expensive. And you know what On2 gave as the reason for the price hike? “We now have to pay fees to the MPEG LA..”.

    I would never claim this is more than a story, but compared to the best argument the other side has been able to muster thus far, wishful thinking, it sounds quite believable. I shall remain sceptical for the time being.

  13. Am I right in thinking DonDiego that you are alleging a wide ranging conspiracy between Google, On2, Mozilla, Opera, ARM, Oracle etc. etc. to cover up the fact that WebM actually infringes all over the MPEG-LA H.264 patents and that Google and On2 have been paying fees to ensure that they, and they alone are safe from patent lawsuits?

    And yet you’re claiming this makes you a skeptic? That word has been severely devalued recently.

    I note that, despite your extra VP8 anecdote, as is usually the case with such things, the same conspiracy theory was raised with regard to Google shipping Theora. It was “safe” for them, according to this theory, because Google already paid the MPEG-LA. It was never explained why it felt it could ship Theora with Chromium and yet it only shipped H.264 with Chrome.

    I’ve not checked the MPEG-LA patent licence terms, but since they generally don’t even cover professional use of H.264, it would seem odd if they covered the production of a competing codec in it’s entirety. And does Google ship a licence notification with Chromium like everyone is required to do by the MPEG-LA? This theory seems to have more holes than swiss cheese.

  14. I found the location of said anecdote again, it was a blog comment, not IRC:
    http://multimedia.cx/eggs/vp8-the-savior-codec/#comment-151648

    skoosh, you are twisting my words quite a bit. I am not alleging a wide-ranging conspiracy. I am saying that people *want* to believe that VP8 does not infringe any MPEG LA patents, but that belief is not based on facts, it is not even based on statements issued by the relevant players.

    Please present me with a statement from Google, On2 or anybody else relevant that claims no patent infringement. I very much wish for VP8 not to infringe on any MPEG LA patents myself. But neither mine, nor anybody else’s wishful thinking will convince me.

    Google does not ship a “license notification” with Chromium because it does not ship H.264 with Chromium.

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