Want a Truly Free Video Format? H.264 Isn’t Gonna Cut It Forever. Enter Google.Author: Johnny5k | Filed under: Apple, Big Media, Broadcast-TV/Cable/Web, Communications, Copyright, Google, Internet
Just when it looked like H.264 was the clear winner in the video format wars (with Apple’s snub of Flash & HTML5 specs coming along), somebody else comes along and throws a big wrench in MPEG LA’s plans.
A little back-story: MPEG LA is a group of patent holders (including Microsoft & Apple) who jointly hold the patents on H.264. For certain applications, licensing fees are charged for implementing the codec, and while it’s been free for most applications, that may change after 2015 when the current licensing runs out. That’s the only reason not all browsers – namely Firefox – have come around to supporting it in their implementation of HTML5. Until now, they (Mozilla) were pushing the Ogg Theora format (currently free, but possibly open to future patent claims).
But now, a few big names, including Mozilla (Firefox) & Google (Chrome & YouTube), as well as numerous others, have come together to stand behind a new royalty-free open source format (read: completely free) called WebM. It uses the VP8 codec (which, ironically enough, is the successor to VP6 – the standard Flash FLV codec until a couple years ago when they switched to H.264). Google gained ownership of the VP8 codec when it acquired On2 Technologies last year, and has only recently announced that they’re releasing it as open source.
Will it catch on? Don’t expect an answer any time soon. This won’t be as ‘short-lived’ as the Blu-Ray vs. HD-DVD war (which was long and painful enough). Unlike that format war, both ‘web’ formats can easily co-exist for years or even decades to come. But with the state of digital video at a sort of apex right now (users aren’t interested in anything larger than 1080p, and that’s mostly H.264 right now), if one of them does come out ahead in the long-run, it may prove to be the same standard format we use for the next 10 or even 20+ years. And ‘internet video’ isn’t just browsers anymore. H.264 is currently used on Blu-Ray discs, and as the format of most of the digital video you see on your tv. If H.264 does end up coming out ahead, there’s a good chance you’ll pay a licensing fee every time you rent a movie on your TV, or buy a new mobile device that can decode the format. It won’t be much, but the manufacturers will pass those costs on to consumers.
What about Microsoft & Apple? (oh, and Adobe)
Microsoft recently announced they will support VP8 with the release of IE9, but not out of the box. Users will have to download a codec/plugin. So that kind of sucks, but Flash was never included with Windows, and look how far that’s come.
Adobe announced they will support VP8 in Flash.
And as for “we want to support open non-proprietary standard formats” Apple? No comment yet. But I’m willing to bet that the lack of any kind of DRM, at least for now, will mean Apple’s going to continue tooting the H.264 horn for a while. They use H.264 for all of their iTunes video content, and have H.264 hardware decoders in all their devices. It’s going to be a hard sell, especially considering the threat of licensing fees isn’t much of a threat, considering they would be one of the companies collecting.
As much as I like H.264 now, it looks like VP8 and the WebM format will be better for everyone in the long run. …damn it. Well, as long as I don’t have to code for IE6 anymore. What’s that, now? Oh Science damn it.