Can Google Save Free, Open Web Video With VP8?
Google will soon control the patents around the VP8 video codec, one possible alternative to H.264 for web video. And the leaders of the free software movement are banging their drum, urging the company to ditch those patents and offer the new video technology for free.
Shareholders of the video company On2 have approved an acquisition offer made by Google, which was initiated last year. On2 has developed the VP8 video codec, and currently holds the patents on it.
If Google were to release the newly-acquired VP8 as a free, open source video codec, it could significantly alter the web’s HTML5 video landscape. After all, Google owns YouTube and puts out the Chrome browser, so adoption would get a huge kick-start.
Free software advocates unhappy with the license-heavy and patent-encumbered video codecs like H.264 and the video quality and performance of free alternatives like Theora have long been hoping that Google would take the VP8 codec and release it as a free, open source savior for web video.
In fact, the Free Software Foundation (FSF) has published an open letter encouraging Google to do just that. However, even if Google does release VP8 for any and all to use, that’s no guarantee that the web’s open video problems will be solved.
Even with Google at its back, VP8 would face an uphill battle against H.264.
While the picture quality and compression of VP8 is generally believed to be superior to Ogg Theora, which is based on On2′s VP3, much of H.264′s appeal lies in hardware optimizations. For example, part of the reason H.264 works so well on your iPhone — offering smooth playback and little drain on the battery — is because the hardware is optimized for H.264.
So, even if Google does release VP8 into the wild, it would still be some time before it could possibly catch up with H.264 on the hardware level. A similar lack of widespread hardware optimization also plagues the Dirac codec, another potential alterative to H.264.
There are also some unanswered questions around the patent status of VP8. Since VP8 is currently closed source and proprietary code, it’s hard to say what patent claims it might be vulnerable to. The MPEG LA consortium (which oversees H.264) governs almost 2000 video encoding patents. The odds of anyone creating an entirely new way of encoding video that doesn’t somehow infringe on at least one of those patents is pretty slim.
In short, while we’d like to see Google do exactly what the FSF is suggesting, that doesn’t mean that such a move would magically solve the web’s open video conundrum.