Google committed a substantial act of charity on the first day of its annual I/O developers’ conference in San Francisco this week, giving away a piece of intellectual property acquired just three months ago at a cost of more than $120 million.
The software, free for anyone to use or modify, may not sound particularly special. Called VP8, it is a video codec–software used to compress video for transfer online and decompress it for playback at the other end. Google acquired VP8 in February, when it bought a small New York company called On2.
However, this seemingly humble piece of code is being promoted by Google and a consortium of major software and hardware vendors as a crucial tool that will bring about a new wave of online innovation. Google combined VP8 with an existing open-source audio codec, called Vorbis, to create a new free video format called WebM. The new format is designed to complete the capabilities of HTML5, the latest version of the free and open code that underlies the Web.
“One of the core tenets of the Web is that it relies on open standards like HTML, TCP/IP, and JavaScipt,” said Google’s project management VP Sundar Pichai to an audience of more than 5,000 at the I/O conference on Wednesday. “It’s great to see video get that option as well.”
Developers can already use HTML code to create Web pages of text and images. But until now, adding video has required the help of third-party software like Flash or Quicktime, and meant licensing a proprietary format. Google has signed up software firms including Adobe–which makes Flash–and Skype, which offers online video communications, as well as chipmakers including AMD, ARM, and Texas Instruments to its WebM project. Adobe will distribute WebM codecs in future versions of its Flash plug-in, while trial versions of the Firefox, Opera, and Chrome browsers are now available with WebM built in.
Adobe’s CTO Kevin Lynch appeared on onstage to explain his company’s support for WebM. Making no reference to the fact the new format will compete directly with Flash, he talked of Adobe’s enthusiasm for WebM, and the company’s ambitions to enable the Web’s HTML5-centric future in general. Lynch demonstrated features of the Dreamweaver Web design software package that make use of the new standard–showing how HTML5 can be used to make animations and interactive content.