Google to Open-source VP8 for HTML5 Video

Google will soon make its VP8 video codec open source, we’ve learned from multiple sources. The company is scheduled to officially announce the release at its Google I/O developers conference next month, a source with knowledge of the announcement said. And with that release, Mozilla — maker of the Firefox browser — and Google Chrome are expected to also announce support for HTML5 video playback using the new open codec.

Google has controlled the VP8 codec ever since it finalized the acquisition of video codec maker On2 Technologies in February. When reached for comment as to its plans, a Google spokesperson told us the company had “nothing to announce at this time.”

The move comes as online video publishers are gravitating toward standards-based HTML5 video delivery, bolstered in part by the release of the iPad. However, that acceptance has been slowed by the fact that the industry has yet to agree on a single codec for video playback, with some companies throwing support behind Ogg Theora and others hailing H.264 as the future of web video.

Google’s YouTube, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 9 and Apple — through its iPad, iPhone and Safari browser — have all thrown their weight behind H.264, which many believe provides superior picture quality and playback to the Ogg Theora codec. However, a few organizations — including Mozilla — refuse to support H.264 due to potential licensing issues. Whereas Ogg Theora is completely open source, the H.264 codec is managed by licensing body MPEG LA. Even though MPEG LA announced in February that it was extending its royalty-free licensing for web video using H.264 through 2016, that was little consolation for Mozilla and others that are committed to supporting open standards.

The result is a divide between which video format can be viewed in which browser. H.264-encoded HTML5 video can be viewed in Apple’s Safari, Google’s Chrome and in the upcoming Internet Explorer 9 browser from Microsoft. Meanwhile, Ogg Theora playback for HTML5 video is supported by Firefox, Chrome and Opera.

Google hopes to stem that divide by making VP8 open source, providing a high-quality and open alternative to existing codecs. On2 first announced VP8 in late 2008, promising more efficient video compression than other available codecs. At launch, On2 went so far as to claim that it could provide “50 percent bandwidth savings compared to leading H.264 implementations.”

Google’s plans to open-source the codec have been widely expected ever since it announced plans to acquire On2 in August 2009, and speculation intensified after the deal closed. The acquisition even led the Free Software Foundation (FSF) to urge Google to kill Flash by open-sourcing the VP8 codec.

While an open-source VP8 could end concerns about H.264’s licensing issues and Theora’s quality, questions still remain about whether Google can provide a video standard on which everyone can agree. Microsoft only recently announced support for H.264 for HTML5 playback, and has never been quick to adopt open standards. And Apple, which has been the driving force behind HTML5 video and H.264 playback on the iPhone and iPad, might not be keen on the idea of switching up its codec support on those devices anytime soon.

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