Commentary: Welcome to the Two-Codec World

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Back when Google closed on the On2 acquisition, I wrote a blog post entitled Google Closes On2 Acquisition - Better check your Wallet. The wallet reference related to the fact that Google donating VP8 to the open source cause could boost the encoding-related costs of all serious streaming producers. Well, Google has open sourced VP8 and just announced that they will remove H.264 playback from future versions of Chrome, so we're well on the way towards that two codec world.

Here's the relevant quote from the Google blog.

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.

I recently wrote an article on WebM encoding for the Streaming Media Industry Sourcebook, and could find very, very few actual sites using it, YouTube excepted. In fact, one of the videos that kept popping up was my standard test video produced in WebM format for a first look in Streaming Media magazine, which was copied without attribution (of course). It's actually on YouTube, if you can believe it; I guess I should have put some copyrighted music in the clip—that would get it booted off fast. The internet classic (at least among encoding geeks) Big Buck Bunny accounted for many of the other samples that I found.

Anyway, despite the magnificent hoopla that surrounded WebM's announcement last summer, it has clearly not been a raging success. In large part, this has nothing to do with the quality of WebM itself—it's actually a very good codec. Rather, with H.264 free in perpetuity, and required for those pesky iDevices, and available in Flash, why bother with WebM? It's up to Google to provide a reason for producers to start using WebM, which they obviously haven't.

So it's not surprising that Google decided to take this step, though—given that Chrome is still only at ten percent share—it's unclear how much immediate impact it will have. What's interesting to consider are the moves to come.

I guess the big question we should all have is why Apple and Microsoft haven't embraced WebM so far. Surely it can't be fear of lawsuit from MPEG-LA, which has proven to be all bark and absolutely no bite so far. Surely it can't be protection of their share of the H.264 royalty stream, which has to be a comparative pittance to companies with billions in the bank.

Where things might get interesting is if Google stops making HD videos on YouTube available in H.264, and transitions over to WebM. That would put Apple under tremendous pressure to integrate WebM into Safari and iOS devices, or-if Adobe integrates WebM playback into Flash-add Flash support. I would bet my life savings that neither of those will ever happen, though clearly one or the other could. I rate the likelihood of either action at under 10%, even if YouTube drops H.264.

What about Microsoft and Internet Explorer 9, which currently plans to support WebM only if otherwise installed on the computer? Can a browser succeed without HD YouTube playback? Will WebM support in Flash bail IE 9 out, and provide the necessary codec? I rate Microsoft adding WebM to IE9 as 50/50 if YouTube drops H.264, much less if it doesn't.

And what about Adobe? They're codec agnostic but obviously pro-Flash. Adding WebM to Flash could provide the codec that allows IE 9 users to support WebM within HTML5, which seems like shooting yourself in the foot. But perhaps Adobe can find a way to make their version of WebM function solely within Flash. Either way, I'm 100% sure that they'll follow through on their promise to support WebM, though I have absolutely no information either way.

Irrespective of these codec battles, it's clear that Flash-and therefore H.264-isn't going away anytime soon. Until HTML5 offers features like live streaming, adaptive streaming, digital rights management, and complete support for all relevant advertising and monetization schemes,  broadcasters won't use it, so most ‘Netizens won't uninstall Flash. In the enterprise, until HTML5 can offer multicasting and peer-to-peer, it will remain more cumbersome and expensive than Flash.

What do I know with absolute certainty? That absent Google and WebM, Ogg Theora would have died a quiet death, and HTML5—for better or for worse—would have centered around H.264. In addition, I know that if your encoding facilities are working at or near capacity, you'll have to buy more computers, add more encoding tools, add some encoding expertise, and double your future storage space if WebM takes off.

On the plus side, without WebM, I doubt MPEG-LA would have graciously extended the H.264 royalty moratorium on free internet video in perpetuity, though we'll never know. And hey, we can all sleep more soundly knowing that purveyors of porn-certainly the largest group of producers subject to H.264 royalties for subscription or pay per view-now have a free, high-quality option. 

I also know that whatever leverage Google uses, they still haven't created any positive reason to distribute video in WebM format. They haven't created any new revenue opportunities, opened any new markets or increased the size of the pie. They've just made it more expensive to get your share, all in the highly ethereal pursuit of "open codec technologies." So, if you do check your wallet, sometime soon, you'll start to see less money in it, courtesy of Google.  

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