The present and future of post production business and technology | Philip Hodgetts

Jan/11

17

What about WebM? [Updated]

By now it’s not news that Google has dropped H.264 support from the <video> tag in their Chrome Browser, ostensibly because WebM is “more open”, which is demonstrably a lie as they continue support for Flash in Chrome. (I have no problem with Google taking whatever actions it likes, but please don’t insult me by saying it’s because of “openness”.)

The important thing to remember is that this changes NOTHING! Not a single thing. No-one cares about WebM and more importantly, no-one should even consider WebM.

WebM is Google’s proprietary (as in only they see the badly documented code) combination of the Matroska (MKV) container format (supported almost nowhere) with Google-owned VP8 for video and the Ogg Theora codec for audio.

The only people who care are the 2% or less of the Internet who believe strongly in open source software. I am ambivalent about open source software. It has a lot of advantages, when it’s truly open, because many people have the opportunity to improve the code. This is not the case with VP8. While the code has been published, it is poorly documented and only google can change it. Others can build on it without Google, but it appears at this point that only Google can update the code for WebM.

But let’s put that aside. There are three problems with WebM:

  • the quality is nowhere near as good as H264;
  • there is no hardware support for playback (and we know from Flash how crucial that is)
  • Google does not indemnify any user from patent issues.

The first two are surmountable. Google could, over time and with a lot of effort, match the current quality of H.264. At that point, H.264 will have evolved into ever higher quality-for-bandwidth. It is conceivable that hardware manufacturers and GPU developers will add support for WebM (although no-one has announced that yet).

What is not surmountable for end users is that Google is unwilling to guarantee that the code is patent free. This means that every user – every company that creates a WebM encoder or decoder, every individual or company that puts WebM on their website, is potentially liable if WebM is found to breach patents held by companies that are not Google. WebM has never been tested for patent purity and most opinions are that, once examined, it’s almost impossible that a patent breach will not be found.

At that point, every single user will be on the hook for whatever settlement is ruled or negotiated. Google is not going to cover you. MPEGLA will because the H264 patent pool has been tested.

So, you could abandon the world’s most used codec, not only on the web but in countless set top boxes and embedded devices for cable companies, or you can go for one that is badly supported, will require higher storage and bandwidth charges and will potentially leave you legally liable.

Or you could continue to use what you’re already using (or should be) H.264 video, with AAC audio in a MP4 container. This is supported natively in the <video> tag in IE 9 and Safari. It is supported by Flash in all browsers, including Chrome. I personally do not like Flash because of performance and stability issues on OS X, but it’s entrenched.

In fact, the Google decision is really one that entrenches Flash (a proprietary format controlled only by Adobe) on the Web, about the time it was deservedly fading out.

At this point Open Source enthusiasts (both of them) will be yelling at me telling me how I’m being led on by MPEGLA and they’ll screw us when the current licensing period elapses. This is a very unlikely scenario because MPEGLA have already said their will be no royalty required from anyone who uses a licensed encoder to put content on the web. They have stated that there will be no such royalty until at least 2015. The likelihood of a charge being initiated after that is slim, as there’s little to be made and a lot of expense in tracking and enforcing.

Plus, there’s that little condition in the MPEGLA license that says they can’t increase license fees more than 10% in any given period.

So, bottom line. Nothing changed. H.264 MP4 for HTML5 <video> tag; H.264 MP4 for Flash playback on platforms that don’t support H.264 in the <video> tag.

[Minor Update] http://antimatter15.com/wp/2011/01/the-ambiguity-of-open-and-vp8-vs-h-264/ is a great commentary on the difference between “open” and “open.”

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12 comments

  • Brian Maffitt · January 17, 2011 at 9:10 pm

    Excellent assessment, Philip. As usual!

    In my view this move will only serve to kill whatever momentum Chrome was gaining as a browser. I’m sure someone at Google thought “Hey, if Apple can ban Flash on iOS, then we can ban h264 in Chrome”… they’re wrong, I believe.

  • Snow · January 18, 2011 at 12:18 am

    Hi Philip,
    Thanks for the best summary I read about the issue.
    How can no one at Google see it?
    Isn’t it obvious to the industry, since they kept flash support, that they display hypocrisy and duplicity?
    What possible good can they make of this?

  • ben scott · January 18, 2011 at 3:44 am

    encoding for multiple platforms in different formats is a reality that wont go away and is currently having a little comeback

    WebM has the potential to democratise encoders in the future, the patent thing could rear its head but its like the mobile phone wars of now, they counter sue for another technology. makes you wonder if the creators of these codecs agree with how their patents get used (see Java and oracle)

    Ogg Vorbis is all that is supported without plugin in firefox4 html5 spec
    they are looking to support webm soon
    I use an iphone and firefox4, if I had the choice eveything would be firefox, it allows me to add functionality not possible in other browsers. if i need to watch a movie the iphone half does it job, if its h264 or not makes no difference to me, there will need to be 3 versions of files for proper web accessibility and some form of metadata track.

    that only 2 browsers support the h264 html5 element doesnt make webM something to skip over

    have you been looking at web stats over the past year or two
    The predominance of IE is quickly draining away, what will most likely take its place is chrome

    that wmv files are still the format of choice for many says a lot as well, people dont update IT machines in business for quite some time

    the flash thing is a stop gap always was
    at least html5 has roughly the same media containers for the different formats, shame the rubbish embed code will still be needed for flash wrappers

    • Admin comment by Philip · January 18, 2011 at 10:38 am

      There is not a single good reason to encode to WebM. Not one. Chrome will still play H.264 via flash.

  • Rick · January 18, 2011 at 7:15 am

    Great post Philip-it’s about time that somebody in the industry chimes in with a sane and reasonable explanation. I’m bookmarking this post in praticular so that when this comes up in conversation I can refer to it. Kudos to Brian for his comment as well. Keep up the excellent work.

  • Marcus R. Moore · January 18, 2011 at 12:43 pm

    It does indeed boggle the mind that Google has been able to bang the drum of “open” for so long and still have so many believe it blindly. Google is a business out to make money. As put so eloquently by the Angry Mac Bastards, “you’re not Google’s customers, you’re their product!”

  • adam · January 18, 2011 at 10:51 pm

    Bravo Philip. I agree 100% with every word of that article. From the absurdity of the vocal minority of Open Source wonks, to the lousy performance of Flash on OSX, to the quality of VP8. Bookmarked and shared. Cheers

  • Patrick Inhofer · January 21, 2011 at 7:03 pm

    Philip,

    This is probably the best, most succinct summary of the impact of Googles decision that I’ve read. It’s good to hear that this decision means nothing to content producers.

    – pi

  • James Gardiner · January 28, 2011 at 12:45 am

    Philip,
    I do agree with your points, but I also think this is a good move for the general future of the industry.

    The Patent lockup on any possible future codec development is quite ridiculous. I think its a good idea to pull down these ivory towers.

    Yes WebM is incapable in reaching the platform support H.264 has, however, it is an alternative. Google is simply keeping it a talking point.

    A discussion topic to “keep the bastards honest”.

    Yes H.264 is that dominant. Remember, I was the guy who pointed this out to you. Ie when Flash adopted H.264. it was the beginning of complete dominance by H.264

    But H.264 is controlled by Capitalist, its all about making money, type companies. We can be assured that they will change the H.264 licensing conditions to their benefit in the future.

    WebM is just the F^#% YOU, if they do. We have an alternative.

    I think its a great service Google does us to keep this alternative option viable.

    James

  • Banibrata Dutta · October 28, 2011 at 5:02 am

    Great article, but I think there’s some bit of precision that needs to be added about all the false sense of security that your mention of MPEGLA patent-pool having been tested for patent purity. AFAIU, the last I read MPEGLA’s T&C, even they do not indemnify you against subterranean patents, and IMHO the biggest threat to codec users using a codec for a popular service is from those. Other than that, I agree with most of the articles, and find it quite informative.

  • Banibrata Dutta · October 28, 2011 at 5:05 am

    On another note, very little gets said or written about AMR and AAC. I find it quite worrying that while MPEGLA has give kind of multi-year waiver from licensing for “internet videos”, nothing of that sort (AFAIK) has happened from the AMR/AAC camp, and those 2 audio codecs (especially AAC) is getting used far too often, risking legal challenges.

    • Author comment by Philip · October 28, 2011 at 9:44 am

      Well apple’s lossless audio codec is now open source.

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