As the Google I/O developers conference begins today in San Francisco, there's one thing that the open-source-loving giant wants to correct: watching video on the web without having to fuss with extra browser plug-ins, and do it the open source way. "Though video is also now core to the web experience, there is unfortunately no open and free video format that is on par with the leading commercial choices" says Google. This was the motivation behind the open source video project: WebM.
Currently, webpages use plug-ins like Adobe Flash, Microsoft Silverlight or Apple Quicktime to display video encoded in different formats, the most popular being the H.264, VP6, VP8 and Theora. HTML5 eliminates the need of plug-ins. It includes a <video> tag, like an <img> tag, which browsers will use to natively play video, without requiring a plugin. However, HTML5 does not specify a standard codec. WebM Project is a Google-sponsored project dedicated to create an open and royalty-free video format that provides high quality video compression using open codecs - to counter the likes of H.264 - for use with HTML5 video.
H.264 is the best video codec on the horizon right now, but it requires a license from MPEG-LA (who manages the patent pool). The terms aren’t currently onerous; H.264 is free or cheap for most users, at least in 2010. But that could change down the road, and even if it doesn’t, the open-source community does not want to use a patent encumbered codec, for philosophical and pragmatic reasons. Theora is an open, but a poor video format. VP6, an open format by video compression outfit ON2 Technologies, was the best codec until H.264 caught up with it. ON2 later developed the V8 format to wrestle back the top spot from H.264. Earlier this year, Google took-over ON2 in a $100 million deal. Google, during the opening keynote of I/O, announced the open sourcing of the V8 online video standard.
WebM has a variation of Matroska container format, optimised for streaming over HTTP, and uses V8, along with the open audio codec Vorbis. We do suspect that WebM will incorporate other open video and audio codecs down the road. Although V8 is some way off the quality of H.264, expect it to catch up once better encoders are developed; just like better encoders for H.264 helped it overtake VP6. We are certain of this because of the broad backing it is already receiving backing from publishers, software and hardware vendors. It has already got a head start with backing from Mozilla and Opera, a privilege H.264 never had. With the backing of hardware giants such as AMD, Nvidia and Texas Instruments, expect hardware-based decoders to hit an Android phone soon. Even Adobe, whose Flash player WebM is out to make redundant, is backing the project. Although the absence of Intel from the supporters is notable, the future looks bright because, as Google puts it, "A key factor in the web’s success is that its core technologies such as HTML, HTTP, TCP/IP, etc. are open and freely implementable". It was about time 'Video' joined this list.