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An ambitious attempt by Google to shift the Web over to a new, royalty-free video format has taken significant strides. New software has been released that can build the format into dedicated chips for cell phones and other gadgets, perhaps the most crucial step before it can displace the proprietary video format that currently dominates.

Google’s video format is known as WebM. It was created by combining the preëxisting audio format Vorbis with VP8, a video format that Google bought last year with the intention of making it free for all to use in WebM. Google wants WebM to become the default for Web video and join the wave of new, powerful, and, crucially, free-to-use Web technologies such as HTML5 that enables Web pages to act like desktop applications.

But that would require displacing the well-established and proprietary H.264 format, now used for most streaming video online. H.264 is built into dedicated video chips in portable gadgets from phones to tablets and camcorders. A consortium called MPEG-LA controls the patents needed to create software or hardware that supports H.264. MPEG-LA levies a license fee on every unit shipped.

Enabling the development of equivalent chips for WebM is crucial if the rival format is to gain a foothold. Without such hardware, the work of encoding video is done by software that taxes a device’s main CPU too much, draining battery life. “The new hardware encoder encodes VP8, using a tiny fraction of the electricity that a general-purpose processor/CPU would use even at HD resolution,” says Aki Kuusela, engineering manager of the WebM Project hardware team. “This makes them very practical for mobile and other low-power devices,” he says. Without a dedicated video chip, such devices can typically muster only poor resolution.

The Google team tested the new hardware encoder by running it on simulated chips and real ones known as FPGAs that can be reconfigured to implement different hardware designs. Interested hardware firms can apply to receive the code for the new encoder online. Kuusela wrote in a blog post that “several top-tier semiconductor partners” are already starting to build their next chips with VP8 built in, but wouldn’t name specific firms. Major chipmakers, including AMD, Qualcomm, and Texas Instruments, are public supporters of the project, though, although they will likely support both VP8 and existing formats in their chips.

WebM has penetrated other parts of the Web’s ecosystem in recent weeks. The new version of the Firefox browser released last week has support for the format built in, while Google engineers built a software plug-in to add the same capability to Microsoft’s IE9 browser.

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Tagged: Computing, Web, Google, smartphones, mobile devices, video, YouTube, HTML, web video

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