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  • Google Reignites Codec Wars by Freeing VP8

    Google is in the midst of its I/O developer's conference and Colin Dixon, senior partner at industry research firm The Diffusion Group, which is a VideoNuze partner, is attending. Today and tomorrow he's providing dispatches and analysis of the events.

    Google Reignites Codec Wars by Freeing VP8
    by Colin Dixon

    At the Google developer's conference, Google I/O, on Wednesday the company announced that the ON2 VP8 codec has been open-sourced. The video codec is being united with the Vorbis audio codec under the WebM effort. VP8 is available under a completely royalty-free license.

    Support for WebM is being built into browsers such as Chrome, Opera and Mozilla. This means that a video provided in the format does not need a separate player; it will play natively in the browser. In addition, Google promised it would be supported in Chrome OS, Google's open source project to turn the browser into the computer operating system. Also, YouTube will fully support the format. Kevin Lynch, CTO of Adobe, also announced full support for the codec in Flash. This is important as Flash is the dominant video delivery mechanism on the Internet.

    The ON2 codec was one of the earliest of the new advanced codecs. As the most efficient codec of its time, it allowed companies such as Move networks to provide adaptive streaming on the Internet at HD quality. Early adopters of the codec were companies such as Fox.com and ABC.com. Google purchased On2 for $120M in 2009.

    The release of VP8 to the open community without a license fee is an important development. Google has the muscle to guarantee wide use and acceptance of the codec. YouTube serves 13 times more video content than any other site in the US. As well, the 70M users of the Chrome browser will also have support for the codec built in. With Flash support it is safe to assume that pretty much every PC will have support for VP8 before the year is out. For content developers, VP8 is a safe option to guarantee that content will play on a wide array of PCs and netbooks.

    Less clear is the value of the codec to non-PC devices. Certainly we can expect full support in Android phones. But support at the TV is far less clear. Devices such as game consoles and set-top boxes are not going to support the codec anytime soon. Major SoC providers such as Intel and Broadcom do not provide built-in support for it, although Intel can support it in software. Until chip vendors support it, getting an STB or TV that can play video in the format is still years away. Perhaps we will hear more about that from Google Thursday (as has been widely rumored.) So, VP8 as a solution for multi-screen delivery is still not viable.

    This leaves content providers with a problem. There still isn't a single codec that is supported on TV, PC and mobile. Perhaps the closest to this is MPEG4 H.264. However, H.264 is fatally flawed. Although today you can use the codec without incurring a royalty fee that could all change on December 31, 2015. MPEG LA, which controls the H.264 license terms, has only said that it would allow free streaming using the codec through 2015. What happens after that is anyone's guess. With uncertainty like this H.264 is unlikely to become the universal standard.

    In the short term, if your video distribution plans are limited to PCs and Android phones VP8 could be the smart choice. For multi-screen delivery, content providers will have to continue to provide their content in several formats for some time to come. Apple, which is heavily backing the H.264 format should give this some serious thought!

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