All posts tagged ‘WebM’

MPEG LA Starts the Search for VP8 patents

MPEG LA, the one-stop shop for motion video patent licenses, yesterday announced a call for patents essential to the VP8 video compression algorithm — the algorithm that is fundamental to Google’s WebM video format. MPEG LA is asking organizations that hold patents believed to cover integral, unavoidable parts of the VP8 algorithm to come forward and submit those patents to the licensing company. The patents will in turn by analyzed by MPEG LA, and those deemed to be relevant will be pooled together. The pooled patents will then be available to license as a single convenient bundle.

In its promotion of WebM and VP8, Google has insisted that all the relevant patents were developed by codec company On2, which Google purchased last year. The patents can be licensed from Google without payment of any royalties or any restrictions on usage. Google has been heavily promoting WebM for use with the HTML5 <video> tag, which allows plugin-free video to be embedded in webpages, and the royalty freedom is a key part of WebM’s value proposition.

Competitive codecs such as the open and industry standard H.264 require royalties to be paid by software and hardware developers. Companies like Opera and Mozilla, as well as the W3C group that is developing the HTML5 specification, deem these royalties be an unacceptable impediment to their usage. They have no such qualms about the royalty-free WebM.

If MPEG LA is successful in assembling a patent pool, that royalty freedom could come to an end. The company is soliciting patent submissions until March 18th. Once the submissions have been made, it will determine which patents are essential to VP8; only those patents that are unavoidable can form part of the patent pool. The owners of those selected patents will then decide on the license conditions they wish to impose, and these conditions could include royalty payments.

Whether this will happen, of course, is the big question. MPEG LA might fail to form a patent pool altogether: it may receive no relevant patent submissions, in which case the patent pool process will likely end. Such an outcome still won’t mean that WebM is in the clear — a company may feel that it’s more lucrative to avoid a patent pool and allow WebM usage to become more widespread before asserting claims — but it would probably imply that there aren’t dozens of potential claimants just waiting to come forward.

This sort of outcome might well see Microsoft’s current neutral stance towards WebM (it will work in Internet Explorer 9, just as long as a suitable third-party codec is installed) become more overtly positive. Redmond might start shipping a WebM codec of its own, for example.

If MPEG LA does form a patent pool, the license terms will be critical. MPEG LA exists to monetize patents, however, so it’s unlikely that any patent pool would permit the kind of indiscriminate royalty-free license that Google currently offers. More likely, they would choose terms similar in kind to those of H.264; Web video may be free, but decoders still incur a royalty. This would put WebM implementors in a difficult position — either drop WebM support, pay up, or risk going to court to fight a patent infringement suit.

An infringement suit is an unappealing prospect: even if you win, the drain on your financial resources can mean that ultimately, you lose. This is especially problematic for organizations like Mozilla, since Google offers no indemnification for users of WebM — if Mozilla gets sued, Google won’t step in to help. As such, the safest, most conservative option for Opera and Mozilla would be to drop support. Google has deeper pockets and can better sustain a legal attack, but even there, the company has to weigh its options carefully. A lost court case could cost tens of millions of dollars. Paying up just to avoid the problem may very well be the better option.

But paying up is problematic too. VP8 is, for most purposes, inferior in quality to H.264. H.264 is much more widespread in software tools, hardware accelerators, and so on: it’s enormously widespread already. If VP8 loses its key feature — royalty freedom — implementers may very well decide that, since they have to pay anyway, they’d be better off paying for the superior, more widely used H.264 license, and abandoning WebM entirely.

Whatever happens — and it will probably be many months before we find out — this is bad news for WebM. The formation of a patent pool directly undermines Google’s claims about the codec — and yet, even if MPEG LA fails to create a pool, question marks surrounding the codec will remain.

This article originally appeared on Ars Technica, Wired’s sister site for in-depth technology news.

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Microsoft Puts H.264 Video Back in Google Chrome, Considers WebM for IE

Microsoft has announced a plug-in for Google’s Chrome web browser that allows Chrome on Windows to play H.264 web video through the HTML5 <video> tag. The new plug-in comes on the heels of Google’s decision to remove H.264 support from Chrome and focus on the company’s competing WebM video codec.

You can grab the new Chrome plugin from Microsoft. Microsoft previously released a similar H.264 plugin for Firefox, which also only supports WebM video.

The video move is the latest sign of a collision between the two tech giants, who now compete directly in search, courtesy of Microsoft’s Bing initiative and mobile, where Google’s Android is taking market share and the new Windows Phone 7 is struggling for a foothold. Google has also launched various cloud-based applications that take aim at Office. This week, the two threw punches over search, with Google claiming Microsoft copies its results, and Microsoft complaining the Google perpetrated a sting worthy of a spy novel.

Now the two are sparring over web video. Google has thrown its weight behind the WebM codec, which the company owns, while Microsoft supports H.264. However, Microsoft says that, provided Google makes some changes, it may be willing to support the WebM codec as well.

While HTML5′s video tag promises a native way to watch video in your browser, video codec support among browsers is divided. Firefox, Opera and Chrome support the WebM codec while Apple’s Safari and Microsoft’s IE9 support H.264. As it stands there is no “it just works” solution, which means most websites still use Flash video players.

Microsoft’s H.264 plug-ins for Firefox and Chrome are part of the company’s attempt to be pragmatic — since Windows includes native support for H.264, users should be able to watch H.264 video even if the browser doesn’t support it. On the other side of the coin, Internet Explorer 9 will be able to play WebM video through a similar third-party plug-in.

However, while Microsoft isn’t including native support for WebM in the next version of IE, it doesn’t appear to totally rule out the idea. As part of the plugin announcement, Dean Hachamovitch, corporate vice president for Internet Explorer, outlines some of Microsoft’s problems with the WebM codec. The main problem is that Microsoft is concerned about WebM’s potential patent risks.

Google insists that it owns all of the patents covering WebM and the VP8 video codec. But the company offers no indemnification for costs incurred should a patent lawsuit arise. That means that anyone distributing WebM/VP8 could be on the hook for any patent-related fees that might come up.

Some have dismissed Microsoft’s patent worries as an example of Microsoft spreading “fear, uncertainty and doubt” about WebM, but Microsoft does have history on its side in this case. As Hachamovitch points out, such patent lawsuits often don’t arise until a technology is in widespread use. So just because no one is suing over WebM now, doesn’t mean they won’t in the future. Hachamovitch cites the JPEG photo compression format, pointing out that JPEG was around for ten years before the first patent lawsuits appeared. Eventually the patents in question were ruled invalid, but not before millions of dollars were spent defending and licensing JPEG.

Of course the same patent threats potentially hang over H.264, but the MPEG-LA consortium — the governing body that oversees the patents surrounding H.264 — provides a kind of legal buffer between H.264 licensees and any lawsuit.

Surprisingly, Hachamovitch says that, if Google is willing to indemnify WebM users against patent lawsuits, “Microsoft is willing to commit that we will never assert any patents on VP8.” Of course that doesn’t mean other companies won’t, but it would be a huge step forward for WebM if Microsoft jumped on the bandwagon. Google did not respond to a request to comment in time for this story.

For now at least Microsoft has chosen a pragmatic approach — plugins. There will be a WebM plugin for Internet Explorer and H.264 plugins for Firefox and Chrome. In the end, Windows users will be able to watch just about any video on the web regardless of which browser they’re using. It might not be an ideal solution, but it is one that, from the user’s point of view, just works.

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File Under: Multimedia

MPEG LA Extends Web Video Licensing Moratorium Until the End of Time

The group that oversees patents on the H.264 video format has announced it will not charge royalties for H.264 videos that are freely broadcast on the internet.

The MPEG Licensing Association (MPEG LA) holds patents on AVC/H.264, the most widely-used video format on the web.

The group announced earlier this year that it would extend a moratorium on royalty fees for H.264 videos on the web from 2011 until the end of 2015. Thursday’s announcement extends this royalty-free period for “the entire life of [the AVC Patent Portfolio] license.”

This means that as long as H.264/AVC videos are around, publishers can post them on web pages and people can watch them in their browsers without having to pay any licensing fees.

The moratorium is only for the Internet Broadcast AVC video patent, which covers videos that are freely available via a web browser. Thursday’s announcement basically extends the status quo until the end of time — you don’t have to pay MPEG LA royalties to watch H.264 video on the web from free services now, and you won’t have to in the future.

The MPEG LA says it will continue to collect fees on AVC/H.264 video that consumers pay for. The video format is used on Blu-Ray discs and on most on-demand and paid video delivery services, such as iTunes. It will also continue to collect fees from software that ships with the coders and decoders required to play H.264 video — even software that’s distributed for free, such as web browsers.

Clearly, the MPEG LA is feeling pressure from the WebM Project, a new initiative launched in May that seeks to build a patent-free web video format. The project has created the WebM format as an alternative for H.264 and other patent-encumbered formats. WebM has already gained the support of Mozilla, Google and Opera, all of which are shipping new versions of their browsers with support built in. It has also gained the support of developers passionate about free and open web standards, especially as the web increasingly moves towards HTML5-based video experiences that work without the aid of plug-ins like Flash.

As promising as WebM’s advancements are, H.264 remains the dominant format for video on the web by a very wide margin — about two thirds of web video is H.264. By extending the royalty moratorium, the MPEG LA is likely trying to maintain that dominance on the web and encourage content providers to continue to use its format for publishing videos. By doing so, it also guarantees the group a revenue stream of licensing fees from the tools used to create, encode and watch those videos — cameras, editing software, authoring suites and web browsers.

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File Under: HTML5, Web Apps

YouTube Launches New HTML5 Mobile Site

The mobile version of Google’s video-sharing website received an upgrade Thursday. The new m.youtube.com has a bunch of new features, including high-quality video playback in the browser using HTML5.

Surf to YouTube’s mobile site with any modern mobile with a browser that supports HTML5′s <video> tag (works great on iPhones, iPads and Android phones) and you’ll notice that when you click on a video thumbnail, the video loads inside a new browser-based player.

The old site on an iPhone used to launch the YouTube native app, taking you out of the browser. In fact, the first time you visit the site on an iPhone, you’ll be prompted to “install” a bookmark on your home screen. This is likely a step to move people away from the YouTube iPhone app and toward the web-based app.

The switch to an HTML5-based mobile experience comes only a week after YouTube published a public memo stating several places where HTML5 falls short when compared to Flash for delivering video. But Flash currently isn’t an option on mobiles. So, while HTML5-based video playback may not be YouTube’s first choice on the desktop (even though the company has been experimenting with it), it makes perfect sense on mobiles.

The whole mobile YouTube site has been optimized for the small screen, and the experience on the phone is now much tighter. For one, the video quality is markedly better, and the web-app’s interface has been updated to look like a native app, with big, touchscreen-friendly button icons.

There are also new features that aren’t in the YouTube iPhone app. The library is easier to navigate, the search box suggests results as you type, videos can be bookmarked like web pages, and favorites and the new “like”-style ratings have been added.

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File Under: Browsers

Firefox 4 Beta 1 Now Available for Download

The next major milestone of the Firefox browser has been released into the wild.

Firefox 4 Beta 1 is now available for Windows, Mac OS X and Linux. We were expecting it last week, as Mozilla had initially estimated the first beta would be available in June, but it’s here now. This release is for the adventurous only — it’s the first beta so it’s stable enough, but not rock-solid. So, if you’re eager to get an early peek at the next generation of Firefox, go forth and download.

The thing that probably matters most to everyday users is speed, and after using it for an hour or so, I can report that Firefox 4 is noticeably much faster than the various 3.x builds on my desktop.

Page load times are speeding up substantially across all the browsers now — Chrome and Safari recently received upgrades with hefty speed boosts, the new Opera 10.6 is on par with those releases, and the new Microsoft IE 9, due later this year, is also showing off some impressive speed in its current release, Platform Preview 3. Speed is one area where Firefox has recently drawn low marks, with some users switching to Chrome simply because it’s so nimble. But Firefox 4 appears set to change that when the final version arrives in a few months.

We covered much of what’s new in our Firefox 4 preview in May, but there are two new features in Tuesday’s release.

First, there’s a new look for Windows users. Tabs are now on top by default (a la Chrome). Mac and Linux users will get this feature as a default in subsequent betas. If you want to try it now, just go to View > Toolbars > Tabs on Top to enable it. Windows users, you can switch the option off using the same method if it’s not your thing. Also new for Windows people is the orange “Firefox” button in the top left. Click it and you get a dropdown filled with the most popular application menu items.

The new Firefox button. Click for larger.

The other new feature — and this is for all OSes — is an integrated Feedback button next to the search box. Click it to report anything that Firefox did to “make you happy” or “make you sad” (Mozilla’s actual wording). The Feedback system incorporates the Test Pilot add-on from Mozilla Labs to collect and anonymize the feedback.

Other big stuff in this beta:

  • Support for WebM video
  • More support for emerging web standards like CSS 3, Canvas and Web Sockets
  • Better page-rendering performance, including a new HTML5 parser
  • Crash protection that prevents bad plug-ins from blowing up the whole browser
  • New add-ons manager
  • Recently updated Jetpack SDK for new-style lightweight add-ons

Syncing, hardware acceleration and new themes for Mac OS X and Linux are coming soon, probably in the next beta release. So stay tuned.

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