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20 May 2010, 09:46

WebM applauded but doubts persist

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WebM logo Google's open sourcing of the VP8 codec as part of the WebM project has been applauded by companies and organisations around the world, but doubts persist about the code, the licence and patents. With the establishing of the HTML5 <video> element for video playback, and the split between browser makers who implement the licensed H.264 standard (Apple, Microsoft) and those who implement Ogg Theora (Mozilla, Opera), there was a danger that video on the web would be split into two camps. Google hopes WebM will bridge that gap by offering a codec which all browser makers could use, and which could possibly be incorporated into the W3C HTML5 specification as a requirement.

Following Google's WebM launch several companies were able to make official statements. In an opening post on the WebM project blog, Google linked to statements of support from a range of companies, including MIPS, Texas Instruments, Skype and NVIDIA. Mozilla's Christopher Blizzard detailed the browser makers reasons for support of VP8; "We're extremely excited to see Google joining us to support Open Video". Collabora were able to announce that they had been working with Google and the WebM project. Developer Christian Schaller said that they were now able to commit patches to the GStreamer framework to enable VP8 and WebM encoding, decoding and streaming and hope to offer RTP streaming soon.

The foundation, who have been developing Ogg Theora and other open media formats for the internet, announced their support of WebM with Xiph's Christopher "Monty" Montgomery saying in a blog post titled "I, for one, welcome out new WebM overlords", that "Of course we (Xiph) support WebM. This is great news for open source, open media, and our own plans at Xiph count on WebM succeeding".

Even Microsoft announced that, IE9 would be capable of playing back WebM video, providing that a WebM/VP8 codec library had been installed, though stopped short of saying they would be prepared to pre-install WebM support. Adobe have confirmed that they will be supporting WebM in Adobe Flash Player.

But there are doubts about WebM too. It was noted early on that although WebM is being described as open source, the actual licence it has been released under, a modified BSD licence which includes a patent licence, has not been approved by the Open Source Initiative (OSI), which has traditionally blessed licences as "open source". Google has not yet approached OSI for that approval.

Others saw technical problems. In a detailed technical analysis, Jason Garrett-Glaser, current primary x264 developer, rated the VP8 spec as "a bit better than H.264 Baseline Profile and VC-1" but said that "It's not even close to competitive with H.264 Main or High Profile". He concluded that "VP8 is not ready for prime time; the specification is a pile of copy-pasted C code and the encoder's interface is lacking in features and buggy. They aren't even ready to finalise the bitstream format, let alone switch the world over to VP8". Garret-Glaser also touched on similarities between H.264 and WebM which could lead to patent issues with the MPEG-LA.

Florian Meuller, campaigner against software patents, went further, telling The H that "Google says it holds certain patents on the VP8 video codec that is part of WebM, but there's no assurance that Google's patents are the only patents required". He worries that third parties could assert patents against VP8 and called on Google to perform a "well-documented patent clearance", adding "the patent question really is a critical one".


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