The WebM video format – the saviour of open video on the web?

I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I’m saying something really really important has happened for the future of the Open Web. Finally, it looks like there might be a solution to the video codecs and patent encumbered alternatives we have been dealing with.

Background

About two months ago I wrote What Will Happen To Open Video On The Web? and expressed fear for the future of video on the web, and that the H.264 codec will never be something solid to build on, due to it being heavily patented. I talked about that the web browser vendors would never agree on the options they had then, and then listed three options of how this situation could be solved. One of them have now come true.

Introducing the WebM project

Today at Google I/O 2010, Google announced the WebM project, which is, simply put:

…dedicated to developing a high-quality, open video format for the web that is freely available to everyone.

In more detail, it is a video format consisting of:

What this means

If the above hasn’t sunk in yet, the implications of this are huge! Imagine a completely open video for the web! To me, personally, it’s the only viable option to move forward. Not only for the sake of developers believing in open source, but for publishers, end users and potential creators all over the web – everyone should be able to contribute their own material to the web without worrying about patents.

Formats for the web have to be completely open, or the web will fail: simple as that. It’s about democracy and, most seriously, the future of humankind, where we want things to be equal and everyone to be able to partake.

Imagine if HTML wasn’t free? If you had to pay a patent fee to use it, perhaps even more for HTML5 since it has more elements? Or CSS? Or JavaScript? Ridiculous, right? Well, the same goes for any other technology we seriously want to spread across operating systems, devices and whatever other channel you can think of.

Who supports this?

From the get-go, in regards to web browsers, Google, Firefox and Opera have already made WebM already available in nightly builds, available here:

These are the companies, for some time now, that I have had high hopes for building a future web based on open technologies, and it makes me so happy to see they keep on delivering. :.-)

Beside from them, Adobe has officially announced its support for the VP8 codec, which also makes it a good fallback option with video in Flash.

What about Internet Explorer?

But naturally, the eternal question is: will Microsoft support this in IE? Well… Today Microsoft announced support for the VP8 codec if it’s installed in Windows, which is sort of supporting it.

I guess this must sting for them after recently writing a long post about their choice of supporting the H.264 codec, but at the same time, they’re smart enough to immediately issue a statement that they’re “all in” with HTML5 and that VP8 might work in IE9.

I know I should be nicer to Microsoft when they’re at least trying, but that’s pretty far from all in for me. “All in” is if you include native WebM support in IE9, just like Google Chrome, Firefox and Opera. Period.

Bad Apple?

Which only leaves only one web browser. Apple Safari. Apple has invested heavily in the H.264 format, not only for Mac OS X and all kinds of video and products there, but also with their iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch. For them to back down or, well, support another format, is probably not a very desirable situation.

However, quoting Steve Jobs in his Thoughts on Flash:

…we strongly believe that all standards pertaining to the web should be open.

If he really stays true to that, he must acknowledge that the video format is as much part of the web as HTML5, and that they should support it. Also, if every other web browser supports it, even IE to some extent, I believe Apple aren’t big enough to dictate the format of video on the web.

Why this will affect everyone

With the Ogg Theora format, there were talks about submarine patents fear and that the format wasn’t as good as H.264. It was also mentioned that there was lack of support for it in web sites/services and not enough hardware support.

One of the things that makes it different this time around is that the quality of the format is supposed to be much better. But, without a doubt, the best of it all is that Google are going all-in with YouTube and encode every video in the WebM format. Also, if they have the guts (and I think they do), WebM should be the only format for video there, with a fallback to the same format in Flash for web browsers who decide not to support WebM – doable thanks to Adobe.

There are also a number of hardware vendors, e.g. ARM, Nvidia, that will support WebM, and I feel absolutely certain more web sites (Vimeo etc) and more hardware companies will start supporting it very soon.

But back to YouTube: if WebM becomes the format for video there, web browser vendors will have no choice but to start supporting it if they want to be a viable option for watching video on the web.

All this could potentially be the future of open video on the web, and I for one sure hope so!

 

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