Google’s open source video codec for the web, WebM, has gotten a spike in coverage of late, primarily because of Mozilla’s announcement that they were giving in and adding native H.264 support to Firefox and their BootToGecko mobile OS. Some reports colored this as bad news for WebM, as that’s the only codec they’ve natively supported until now.
Firefox 4 and later, Chrome 6 and later, and Opera 10.60 and later have native support for WebM video. IE9 will play WebM with an extension. Android has had native WebM support since 2.3 Gingerbread. WebM is a combination of the VP8 video codec, which Google acquired when they purchased On2 Technologies, the Vorbis open source audio codec, and the Matroska container format. It is designed from the ground up to be optimized for the web, and Google has released all of the patents so it is free and open for anyone to use. And it really is a solid format.
But WebM has struggled to overcome the lead held by H.264, the most popular format for online video. H.264, which is a short way of saying MPEG-4 Part 10 or MPEG-4 AVC, is a patent encumbered video format. Using H.264 requires paying royalties through the MPEG LA, which is why Mozilla resisted supporting it in their products. But H.264 is so ubiquitous that they’ve decided they must support it just to remain relevant in the browser market. Without H.264 support they felt that they’d effectively be locking themselves out of the market.
One of the biggest obstacles for WebM is Apple. Apple has long been a strong backer of H.264 and that’s the native format for all of the iProducts, as well as QuickTime. Apple has not implemented WebM in any of their iProducts, nor in their Safari browser. And with the large and growing usage of mobile devices, and Apples strong share of that market, it pretty much forces content providers to use H.264. While they could provide both WebM and H.264, as YouTube does, most providers simply stick with just H.264 as it is effectively universal. Apple has a horse in the race – they’re one of the patent holders behind H.264, so they’re not keen on any royalty free alternative dethroning it. Microsoft is also one of the patent holders, which may help explain why IE9 lacks native support as well.
There is some hope as the W3C is considering making WebM support a requirement under the HTML 5 standards effort. It is considered beneficial to have one universal, royalty free format that authors could count on. But, of course, companies like Apple & Microsoft are resisting the standardization effort. If it goes through they’d be forced to either implement WebM in their products or stop claiming to be HTML 5 compliant.
Coincidentally with the recent hubbub, StreamingMedia.com posted a video of Google’s John Luther and Matt Frost’s session on WebM at the recent HTML5 Video Summit in Los Angeles. It is an interesting look at just what WebM is, the goals behind it, and where the team is heading. Check it out:
Early in the presentation you may have noticed that they play a video for the audience, off camera. Based on the audio I believe this is the video they played:
I’d love to get a copy of their slides, it is an interesting presentation – for very geek values of interesting, of course.