Wednesday, May 19, 2010

WebM might be a big deal after all

Earlier today, I wrote a post that said that Google's announcements at the I/O Conference this morning weren't all that exciting. But, the WebM announcement, might--might--just be a Big Thing. Google not only signed up most of the web browser leaders except for Microsoft and Apple (and after today's announcement, Microsoft said that it would support WebM in Internet Explorer 9 if the user installs the codecs themselves); it signed up just about all the major players in hardware encoders and decoders. They signed up almost all the major players in mobile phone chip sets, including ARM, Broadcom, Freescale Semiconductor, Marvell, MIPS Technologies, Texas Instruments and Qualcomm. They got many of the leaders in high-end video encoders, including Harmonic, Telestream, Digital Rapids, ViewCast, Inlet and Anystream. And, they got both of the leaders in GPUs, Nvidia and AMD.

These companies are important because it costs a lot to build hardware encoders and write tight, high-performance firmware. The fact that Google got all these players to sign on indicates that they see real potential in WebM. This represents a big problem for MPEG LA, the consortium that licenses patents related to H.264. Steve Jobs and MPEG LA executives have been doing more than hinting that both Ogg Theora and VP8, which is the video codec in WebM, infringe on MPEG LA's patents. But, I strongly doubt that these companies would expose themselves to potential liability to support an infringing codec. Google may well have agreed to indemnify at least some of these companies should MPEG LA, one or more of its consortium members, or a company with separate patents such as AT&T, takes legal action.

WebM isn't going to have any impact on Blu-Ray, which supports H.264 and Microsoft's VC-1 codec. Nor will it have much impact on cable, satellite or IPTV service providers; they're already heavily invested in MPEG-2 and MPEG-4. It's very unlikely to have a big impact on camcorders, because so many of the major camcorder manufacturers also contribute a large share of MPEG LA's patents and have cross-licensing agreements with each other to keep costs down.

Where WebM is likely to have its biggest impact is on the web, both in desktop and mobile applications. Acquisition--getting video from a camcorder into a digital form--probably isn't going to change, but the chain from encoding video after post-production to decoding it on your PC, tablet, phone or Internet-enabled set-top box can now be royalty-free.

The big "if" is whether or not WebM/VP8  is actually a good replacement for H.264. Is it in the same ballpark as H.264 for video quality, bandwidth efficiency, encoding and decoding speed and CPU utilization? Google claims it is, but we won;t know for sure until there's been third-party testing of a variety of VP8 encoders and decoders. If VP8 can stand up to H.264, it has an excellent chance of becoming the new standard for video on the web.
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