On Tuesday Google announced that it would be withdrawing support for the video standard h.264 from its Chrome browser in two months’ time. Back in June 2009 we covered the contortions that Google had gone through to use the open source video codec FFmpeg in Chrome to decode embedded videos without risking the wrath of the the owners of that standard, the MPEG LA h.264 patent pool. Essentially Google used FFmpeg but did not acquire a licence from the patent pool for FFmpeg itself, but instead for its Chrome browser. This was a cunning move but at the time it annoyed some around the open web standards community who felt – with some justification – that Google’s move was something of an ‘I’m alright Jack’ statement to the rest of them. Representatives of the Mozilla project who produce Firefox scalded Google on public lists, as reported in that previous post.
In August 2009, a couple of months later, Google bought the media compression company On2 for about £100m. This was widely interpreted as an initial move to bypass the stranglehold that h.264 had on web video and perhaps produce a genuinely open standard with all necessary patents licensed for use by all. After all, On2 was the company that had contributed its (somewhat outdated) video codec VP3 to the web standards community, a codec which had come to be the basis of open video encoding standard Theora. During the arguments over Chrome and FFmpeg, many had argued that Theora should be the basis for web video and its embedding in the new HTML 5 standard using the new <video> tag. At the time Google had pointed out that Theora/VP3 was just not as efficient as h.264, and that its use would mean hosts and users paying for more bandwidth for the same quality video as h.264 provided.
In May last year, Google announced a new video container standard – WebM – which incorporated three related open media standards. Digital media files typically contain multiple streams of data encoding video, audio and subtitle information. To manage these multiple streams, media files are packaged in what are often called ‘container’ formats – essentially standards that describe how streams can be packaged together and decoded by playback hardware. Early container formats such as MPEG and AVI did not support complex options such as multiple audio and video streams, or incorporated subtitles. As it became clear that these older formats were unable to mimic the experience end users expected from their DVD players, more complex containers – such as the open standard Matroska - were developed. Matroska – which enabled multiple audio, video and subtitle tracks in a single file – became popular quickly, in part due to its ability to allow Japanese Anime video files to be exchanged over the internet in a form that satisfied both native Japanese speakers and others who required subtitles or dubbed audio. Google’s WebM was a new container format based heavily on the Matroska template. Within each WebM file there is typically at least an audio stream encoded by the open Ogg Vorbis standard and a video stream encoded by the VP8 standard (a much more efficient progression of the VP3/Theora codec) which Google had acquired with On2 the previous August. In the same announcement, Google, Mozilla and Opera revealed new builds of their browsers which fully support the WebM standard.
So since last year there has been – thanks to Google – an entirely open group of video and audio standards that anyone can use in their web content and encode and decode in their software. The question remained, though, would it get used? Microsoft and Apple were both licensors in the h.264 patent pool, and stood to make money if they could keep h.264 the de facto web video standard. The day after the WebM announcement Microsoft revealed that Internet Explorer would also support the new open standard. That left – and leaves – Apple. Apple’s browser Safari does not support WebM and Apple has announced no plans for it to do so. This is not such a big problem in the desktop, where Chrome is available for Mac OSX with WebM support, but in the mobile space, it potentially is. Mobile Safari, the only web browser currently permitted by Apple to render HTML on the iPhone, iPad and iPod, accounts for 40-50% of mobile web traffic. While WebM can be a huge success on the desktop with or without Apple’s support, in the mobile space Apple’s cooperation is more important. So would they play ball? It seems unlikely, at least for the moment. The day after the Google WebM announcement, an Apple engineer briefed news site Apple Insider saying that the VP8 codec element of WebM was ‘a mess’ and not competitive with h.264.
By dumping h.264 support from Chrome, Google is making a strong statement that it is prepared to use its power to drive WebM adoption. After all, Google owns Youtube, the most accessed video hosting site on the internet. If Google shuts down h.264 support on Youtube, it could kill that standard – at least in web video – overnight. Whether it is prepared to take this action remains to be seen. Certainly it seems likely that the MPEG LA h.264 licensors might have something to say about such an action – and its anti-competitive effect – in court.
For the open source and open standards community, WebM is unequivocally good news, as is Google’s willingness to strong-arm its adoption. Open source video decoding has long been a dark art for legal rather than technical reasons. The existence of a genuinely royalty-free video format set removes the threat of legal action from open source video projects which adopt it. For educational establishments, the current lack of involvement of Apple is troubling. iTunesU has been extremely successful in the UK, with UK institutions producing a surprisingly high proportion of the most downloaded material worldwide. With the current emphasis on open educational resources in UK policy, a genuinely open video standard would seem a natural way for open educational resources to be distributed – opening as it does the possibility of entirely legitimate royalty-free open source video editing software and a consequent widening of the audience who are capable of remixing the material for their own purposes. However while iTunesU remains the primary portal for UK educational video content, and Apple’s native software (iTunes, iOS video decoding, Quicktime) does not support WebM, it seems unlikely that we will be able to take full advantage of this advance.