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.
The combination of the more powerful HTML5 standard with an open video format will free up developers to try new things, says Ramesh Jain, a professor at the University of California, Irvine and founding editor of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ MultiMedia magazine. “One of the lessons the Web has taught us is that for anything to scale, it needs to be built on the simplest standard so anyone can use it–video has never had that before,” says Jain. HTML5 allows Web applications to do things normally reserved for software installed on a computer’s hard disk–directly accessing hardware like cameras and microphones, triggering events outside of a browser like notifications, or continuing to work when offline.
Being able to embed open video into Web pages will also make it possible to offer new functionality, says Jain. For example, it could let users instantly “channel hop” between camera angles during a sports game without chewing up lots of computing power and bandwidth. Flash may today deliver around 75 percent of online video, “but I get the impression it won’t be needed for that in future,” says Jain.
Google claims that in some situations, WebM can offer significant savings in bandwidth and power consumption compared to H264, the video format used in most cell phones and in Web applications like YouTube, which is licensed by the Denver firm MPEG LA. If the new format performs as advertised, it will be particularly compelling for mobile devices, where battery and speed concerns are most serious.
“What Google has done is huge,” says Ramu Sunkara, cofounder of mobile video streaming service Qik. Video codec licensing fees are particularly onerous on mobile hardware firms, he says. “Each time a manufacturer sells you a phone, they are paying a license fee for the encoder and decoder, and on top of that cost they must also worry about how those license terms may change in the future.”
The new format is far from fully baked, though. In a session on Thursday to introduce developers to WebM’s capabilities, YouTube software engineer Kevin Carle presented a laundry list of things the new format can’t yet do. These include supplying true full-screen video beyond the bounds of a browser window, live streaming, and supporting the placement of content-relevant advertising.
The WebM coalition can draw on the wide experience of its members to tackle that list, but it won’t change the world overnight, says Jim Greer, CEO of the Web gaming service Kongregate. “On Chrome and Safari, HTML5 does really well, but around 40 percent of our users are using a version of Internet Explorer,” he says. Although Microsoft has said it will allow people to add a WebM plug-in to the upcoming IE9, the legacy of its previous browsers will likely limit WebM’s initial growth.