Google will take a swashbuckling step towards license-free web video playback next month when it open sources the leading video codec from a company it just acquired for $124.6 million, according to a report citing multiple people familiar with the matter.
NewTeeVee reports that Mountain View will open source On2's VP8 codec at its Google I/O developers conference in San Francisco in mid-May. The publication also says that Google will roll the codec into its Chrome browser, and that Mozilla will do the same with Firefox.
Google first announced its acquisition of On2 Technologies in August of last year, and at the time, the company at least hinted that it would open source the outfit's leading codec. In both the press release and the blog post trumpeting the deal, Google said it believes “high-quality video compression technology should be a part of the web platform” - and that On2 is a way of achieving that goal.
Asked to comment on the new report from NewTeeVee, a Google spokesman said the company has nothing to announce at this time. ""We're excited to be working with the On2 team to continue to improve the video experience on the web," a company spokesman told us.
Mozilla declined to comment.
Whatever its intentions with the On2 codec, when it comes the issue of free and open video playback, Google has spent the past few months playing both sides of the fence. Along with Opera and Mozilla, Google attempted to include the free and open Ogg Theora codec as a requirement of the HTML5 video tag. But its Chrome browser uses both Ogg Theora and the patent-tied H.264 codec, and Google has received criticism from the likes of Mozilla for continuing to use Adobe Flash and H.264 on YouTube.
“I do not like the situation on the Web today, where to use all the content you need to have a license to Flash,” Mozilla vp of engineering Mike Shaver said on a public mailing list last summer. “And I’m saddened that Google is choosing to use its considerable leverage - especially in the Web video space, where they could be a king-maker if ever there was one - to create a future in which one needs an H.264 patent license to view much of the video content on the Web.”
As it stands, the HTML5 video standard does not specify a codec.
Then, in January, Google added a "trial" HTML5 player to YouTube, which used H.264 rather than Ogg. This not only went against Google's ostensible commitment to free and open video playback, it also meant that the player did not work with Opera or Firefox, which use Ogg exclusively. That said, Google indicated the player may support other codecs in the future.
"Support for HTML5 is just a TestTube experiment at this time and a starting point," a company spokesman told us. "We can't comment specifically on what codecs we intend to support, but we're open to supporting more of them over time. At the very least we hope to help further this active and ongoing discussion."
This may or may not be a hint that VP8 support is on the way - the statement doesn't mention Ogg - but earlier this month. the company struck what some would call another blow to free and open video when it announced that Chrome will actually bundle Adobe's Flash. You'd have to say that Google's move will prolong the life of Flash video - Google even said it believes in the future of the plug-in - though it's worth noting that Flash is more than just a video technology.
Opera chief standards officer Charles McCathieNevile understands efforts to improve the security and stability of Flash in the browser - Opera bundles Flash with its browser on the Wii game console - but on the desktop, there's a larger effect to consider. "In terms of standards, you don't want to have plug-ins at all," he tells The Reg. "We're not particular fans of Flash. We'd like to see open video formats and free video formats and Flash isn't that.
"One of the impacts on standards is that if you bundle Flash with the browser to work a bit nicer for a bit longer is kind of a retrograde step." Charles McCathieNevile said he can't imagine that Opera would bundle Flash on the desktop.
Google could at least balance out its Flash play by open sourcing VP8, a higher quality codec than Ogg. OggTheora is actually based on an earlier incarnation of the On2 codec, VP3. In 2001, On2 opened VP3 under an irrevocable free license.
But that still leaves Apple and Microsoft. Apple uses H.264 with its Safari browser, arguing that Ogg is burdened by scant hardware support and an "uncertain patent landscape," and one wonders if the Jobsian cult would apply the same arguments to an open source VP8. Meanwhile, Microsoft just announced that the upcoming Internet Explorer 9 will lean on H.264 as well.
According to company open source guru Chris DiBona, Google has continued to use Flash on YouTube because Ogg can't match the performance of H.264. But presumably, an open VP8 would solve this alleged performance issue. When On2 introduced VP8 in 2008, it promised "50 per cent bandwidth savings compared to H.264."
After Google announced its On2 acquisition, the deal was delayed by unhappy On2 shareholders, but it finally went through in January, with Google forking out approximately $124.6 million. Later that day, the Free Software Foundation published an open letter to the company, urging it to open source VP8.
"Without making VP8 a free format, it's just another video codec. And what use is another video format with patent-limited browser support?" reads the letter, posted to the Free Software Foundation (FSF) blogs.
"You owe it to the public and to the medium that made you successful to solve this problem, for all of us, forever...We'll know if you do otherwise that your interest is not user freedom on the web, but Google's dominance. We all want you to do the right thing. Free VP8, and use it on YouTube!" ®