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Google releases VP8 codec, launches new WebM container for HTML5 video

In line with its ‘Don’t be evil’ policy, Google has announced the freeing of the VP8 codec which it had obtained from its purchase of On2 Technologies for use in HTML5 video, along with the new WebM container support for Youtube. But all does not look well for the codec which Google claims to be both patent and royalty-free.

Read on to find out more.

When Google announced the freeing of the new VP8 codec which it acquired from its purchase of On2 Technologies last week, it seemed that the major barrier to HTML5 video had finally been broken. While H.264, the current codec used for draft HTML5 video handling, offers better video compression and quality, it comes at the cost of being both patent encumbered and non-royalty-free, the two issues which had often bugged free software advocates like Google and Mozilla Firefox, with the latter even deciding to ditch support for H.264 altogether in favor of the free Theora container.

Needless to say, the news of VP8’s freeing and the launch of a new container format based on the codec came as good news to many such advocates who were quick to call WebM as a true patent and royalty-free alternative that would advance the HTML5 video standard. Indeed, nightly builds of Google’s Chromium Browser and Mozilla’s Firefox after 21 May 2010 all feature support for WebM and VP8, while Microsoft has also announced that Internet Explorer 9 will also be able to make use of VP8 if the codec has been installed locally into the OS. In addition, both Nvidia and ATI have pledged support for VP8 hardware acceleration as well.

However, it seems that the celebration might have come a little too soon, as several warning sirens have now been raised over the viability and integrity of the VP8 codec, most of it being related to Google’s claims of the codec being unencumbered by both patents and royalties.

The first uncertainty was raised by a developer in the x264 free software library, where the source code for VP8 was said to be alarmingly similar to the actual H.264 specifications, which puts the codec well in the firing line for potential claims of patent infriengements. It was also stated by the developer that VP8 is nowhere near as competitive as H.264’s Main and Higher Profiles, although it performs somewhat better than H.264 Baseline, and is a huge improvement over the existing free Theora specifications.

But of greater concern is the MPEG-LA’s interest in the VP8 codec: merely days after the freeing of VP8 and the release of the new WebM format, the licence provider for various AV standards have expressed and confirmed their interest in assembling a patent pool to determine whether VP8 infringes on any existing patents held. If found, the MPEG-LA might seek royalties from Google or providers over the use of VP8, thus defeating the purpose of having what Google claims to be a codec that is both patent and royalty free, and forcing users to revert back to H.264, which is currently licenced for free use only up till 2015, after which royalties can be demanded.

Still, while we wait for the outcome of MPEG-LA’s decision over the formation of its patent pool against VP8, users who are interested in trying out Google’s new WebM format on Youtube can do so by simply signing up for its HTML5 beta program and adding in &webm=1 at the end of the search query’s URL to enable WebM playback instead of H.264 as shown.

However, not all of Youtube’s videos have been re-encoded into VP8, so if you get an error message like the one below, the video is currently only available in H.264.

VR-Zone is a leading online technology news publication reporting on bleeding edge trends in PC and mobile gadgets, with in-depth reviews and commentaries.

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