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WebM – The New Open Source Codec on the Block

May 27, 2010 Leave a comment

In August 2009, Google acquired codec developer On2 Technologies for a rumoured $106 million. The flagship On2 codec was VP8 and it was also rumoured at the time that Google may open source this technology in the future, although a number of challenges lay ahead.

Late last week this rumour became reality and WebM was born. Alongside Theora and Dirac, WebM now enters the open source HTML 5 ready codec battle. Almost immediately all major web browsers, except one, but including Internet Explorer announced support for the codec. Using the might and muscle of Google WebM must have a solid chance of taking on the dominance of H.264 in the web video delivery battle. This really will be a solid kick in the pants for Theora, which now seems destined to remain a reasonably niche product, even with direct HTML 5 support from Firefox.
In short order some early comparisons between H.264 and WebM appeared online. Some with more technical detail than others. The debate also began as to whether Google was benevolent or evil. Did WebM contain submarine patents that not even Google were aware of?
Producing WebM video for the masses was the next step. Easy to follow FFmpeg tutorials are available and just a few days ago a major commercial transcoding software vendor announced WebM/VP8 support.
WebM video is already available on YouTube, in experimental form. How long before at least all new YouTube video is transcoded to this format? If WebM quality is on parity with H.264, and the jury is still out on that, what is the unique selling point of H.264? Why would anyone continue to use it? 
There will be a substantial legacy component to overcome. Many people and organisations have invested heavily in H.264 technology, and a move to WebM may represent an operational, although not licensing, cost. However, with Google behind it, many of Big Business’ concerns around open source projects may be alleviated.
Adding to this, H.264 video within a Flash player still has significant advantages over HTML 5 delivered video content, in terms of presentation flexibility and perceived security.
H.264 video is of course still dominant for web delivery, just as VP6 and VP7 was in the past. However, WebM is an exciting development with a bright future. Using the collective power of open source development, and no small amount of corporate backing from Google, watch out for WebM to challenge MPEG-LA’s codec in the future.
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