File Under: Browsers, HTML5

On Web Video Support, Safari Now Stands Alone

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SAN FRANCISCO — When Google announced it would be releasing the VP8 video codec under an open source license, all of the major browser vendors jumped up to support it.

Well, all of them except Apple.

The WebM Project, a partnership between Google, Mozilla, Opera and dozens of other software and hardware makers, provides web developers a way of embedding video and audio in HTML5 pages without plug-ins, and without resorting to patent-laden technologies.

Watchers of the open web have been waiting for this development for some time. The HTML5 video playback experience varies greatly between browsers, with different browsers supporting different flavors of video, creating a poor user experience and forcing developers to rely heavily on plug-ins like Flash and Silverlight. Google was widely expected to take a step towards solving the video problem on the web with Wednesday’s WebM announcement.

Indeed, within minutes of the project’s launch here at Google I/O, links went up to new versions of Firefox and Opera with built-in support for WebM video. Chrome support will be coming in the next beta, due later this month. Microsoft says that Microsoft Internet Explorer 9, due to arrive as soon as the end of 2010, will support VP8 video playback if a user has installed the free codec on their copy of Windows. Adobe says Flash Player will also support it as soon as possible. Executives from Mozilla, Opera and Adobe were all on stage during Wednesday morning’s keynote to pledge their support.

But nobody from Apple appeared, and as of Wednesday afternoon, the company has made no such announcement about support for WebM video in Safari. When asked to comment on this story, Apple didn’t respond.

Of course, Apple has a great deal of time and money invested in a competing technology, H.264. Its Quicktime ecosystem is built on H.264, and it uses the video format for all of its content served through iTunes. It’s also the native format on iPads, iPhones and iPods.

Most video on the web — approximately two-thirds of it — is served in the H.264 format, but various licensing requirements make some nervous to use it. Apple owns patents around H.264 and benefits from the licensing fees that allow its use (so does Microsoft, and many other companies).

So, will Apple begin supporting a open source video codec that competes for space on the web with H.264?

“Stranger things have happened, but I’d be surprised if that happened soon,” says Christopher “Monty” Montgomery, creator of the Ogg container, an open source video and audio technology integral to the new WebM Project, in an e-mail to Webmonkey.

Apple has sent not-so-subtle threats about possible patent violation complaints being brought against supporters of open video codecs. In an e-mail to a blogger, Jobs warned that MPEG-LA, the licensing group that oversees H.264, was assembling a patent portfolio to “go after” open video codec makers.

“Unfortunately, just because something is open source, it doesn’t mean or guarantee that it doesn’t infringe on others patents,” Jobs wrote.

But Monty isn’t worried about the MPEG-LA suing him or anyone at the WebM Project.

“The recent saber-rattling by Jobs felt more like a message to his own troops than a warning shot to ours,” he says. “MPEG itself has always has an internal contingent that has pushed hard for royalty-free baselines from MPEG, and the missives about video codecs and patents were probably meant for them, not us.”

Google VP of product management Sundar Pichai says the company has done “a thorough legal analysis of VP8″ since acquiring it, and remains confident it can release the technology under an open source license without infringing on any patents.

The Safari browser is based on the same WebKit engine as Google Chrome, and the WebKit engine is open source. But codec support is not a component of the rendering engine, so even though Google’s browser supports VP8 and WebM content, it doesn’t provide an instant fix for Safari.

And of course, iPad and iPhone browsers run Safari, so WebM video won’t work on those devices until Apple adds support.

However, it wouldn’t be tough for Apple to implement WebM support. All of the technologies involved have been released under permissive open source licenses, and it’s already been rolled into three major browsers.

“It’s not a technical challenge,” says Google VP of engineering Linus Upson. “If you look at the other browsers that have already implemented VP8, it’s just been a matter of a few weeks.”

Google’s Upson and Pichai both say they hope all web browsers will support WebM’s efforts eventually.

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