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Yet almost a year since Google announced its WebM project, the format makes up a “very small percentage” of online video, says Jeff Malkin, president of Encoding.com, a company that converts online video between formats to allow publishers to serve different devices, and that has supported WebM since its launch, at Google’s request.

Being able to get the format built into hardware is a step forward, says Malkin, “but I don’t know if hardware is the bottleneck to it taking off,” he says, because WebM’s advantages remain unclear. It is much better than earlier royalty-free video formats, says Malkin, but so far the new format and the software Google has created to encode video in it can’t compete technologically with H.264. “It’s nowhere near the same on performance.”

Jason Garret-Glaser, who leads development of an open-source tool to encode H.264 video called x264, agrees. “The encoders for VP8 were initially terrible and are now less bad,” he says. A recent technical analysis that he was involved with found that Google’s encoders still can’t generate video as speedily or at the same quality as x264 can using the H.264 format.

With more work, it should be possible for VP8 to deliver performance close to that of the established, proprietary rival, says Garret-Glaser. But to make WebM stick, Google will need to leverage other assets.

This January, the firm removed built-in support for H.264 from its Chrome browser. But Google has been slower to make the most of its most potent lever, YouTube. Some videos uploaded to the site are converted to the WebM format. “But so far, YouTube appears halfhearted about it,” says Garret-Glaser. “Some videos encode, some don’t or take weeks.” He thinks that WebM’s destiny may be to be a competitor to H.264, not a conqueror of it.

However, “it’s nice to have that,” he says, “it keeps pressure on MPEG-LA, which may make its licensing more friendly,” he says. That should make it easier for developers to build on video technologies, creating new experiences for end users.

If such competition spurs video codecs to become more efficient, consumers will get other tangible benefits, says Eve Riskin at the University of Washington, whose research group has developed its own video encoders intended to enable video calling for sign language even on slow, non-3G cellular connections. “On a mobile device, the big challenges are battery life and bandwidth,” she says, “and better codecs can deliver more with the power and bandwidth you have.” The end of “all you can eat” mobile data plans by many networks could enhance the importance of good video compression for users, she points out.

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

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