Not long ago I wrote a piece discussing the possibility of Google doing something pretty revolutionary in the video space. Having recently purchased the video codec company On2, there developed a lot of hope among open source proponents that the search giant would take On2′s technology and release it to the public as open source and patent-free. Why was there so much speculation in this direction? Partially because On2 had previously donated the code from VP3, their earlier codec, to the open source video project Ogg Theora, so there was precedent for such a move. Further, the timing of the On2 purchase put it squarely in the on-going discussion about the proposed shift from Flash to HTML5 for serving video on the web. Many proponents of open web standards (including famously the team behind Mozilla) would love to see online video delivered not via a proprietary technology such as Adobe’s Flash, but instead through the much simpler <video> element present in HTML5. As the proprietor of YouTube, anything Google does in regards to video is going to make noise, and a combination of HTML5 and a patent-free codec would make for an absolutely free (as in both beer and speech) video distribution for the Internet. Flash is of course a proprietary commercial product from Adobe, and H.264 while rapidly becoming the de facto standard for video today can be open source (see x264) but is only royalty free as long as MPEG-LA decides so (they have only promised to keep it free through 2015).
In other words, Google’s just leaked decision to release VP8 as open source and royalty free, in combination with YouTube’s more tentative moves towards HTML5, combine to be a serious upheaval of the digital video world. That’s not to say there aren’t still a number of challenges ahead, for both Google and proponents of the HTML5/VP8 solution. First, Google and YouTube are very unlikely to make a large transition to VP8 encoded video until it can be shown that On2′s former codec can really back up the claims of its quality. Google has previously admitted that using the open and patent free Ogg Theora codec as it exists currently would exponentially drive up YouTube streaming costs because of Theora’s inferior bitate to quality ratio compared to H.264. Codec experts that I respect have been pretty skeptical of On2′s inflated claims about the quality of VP8, and the product is, at this point, little more than vaporware, so comparative tests between VP8 and H.264 remain impossible. However, even if VP8 is released and proves to be an acceptable alternative to H.264, there remains a pretty daunting legal minefield. MPEG-LA has traditionally operated from a pretty broad interpretation of its IP holdings and there is a *very* good chance they could target VP8 (or an improved Ogg Theora) for infringing on what MPEG-LA’s member companies have patented in H.264. On2 was certainly not as tempting a litigation target as Google and YouTube would be.
An interesting question remains, though, as to why Google is going to such expense and effort to overturn the current online video situation. H.264 is after all an excellent choice for many reasons currently, and Flash has served YouTube well even from its pre-Google days. One very sharp observer suggested to me, however, that the real motivation for the HTML5/VP8 play by Google comes down ultimately to advertising, not a shocking point considering where the search giant actually earns its billions in revenue. By wresting control of online video delivery from Adobe’s Flash and H.264, Google could reinforce its own its own dominant role in video advertising via YouTube, and at the same time head off any inroads Microsoft is hoping to make with IE and Silverlight (or any plans Apple has to build video ads upon Safari as well). The decision by Mozilla to opt out of natively supporting H.264 presented Apple and Microsoft with the chance to push their own browsers and build walls and possibly build walls (and advertising schemes) around compelling video content. If Google can really switch YouTube to HTML5/VP8, then the other browsers will have to follow suit, essentially giving Google a commanding position.
Admittedly, some of this stuff is probably wildly speculative, but the reality is that decisions on such relatively obscure technologies like codecs and browser plug-ins can have a profound affect on the shape of the Internet, and the billions of dollars of commerce conducted upon that platform. Google has already spent hundreds of millions of dollars on the codec front, so they clearly understand video’s strategic importance.