Google recently announced that it has completed the acquisition of On2, a company which produces high-end video encoding formats. This move has led to speculation that Google may be trying to break the current stalemate in the Web video format wars with its own better-positioned contender.
On2 was the company that created what eventually became Ogg Theora, the format that is presently competing with H.264 to be the de facto standard video format on the Web. Unlike H.264, Ogg Theora is notable for being apparently free of patents, but it has been criticized as being somewhat inferior to H.264 in some technical areas.
Since producing the technology behind Ogg Theora, On2 has also developed a number of other video formats, including one called VP8 which is considered much more competitive with H.264 from a technical point of view. The downside with VP8 is that it depends on numerous patents owned by On2.
Since Google first announced their intent to purchase On2 in August 2009, it has been speculated that Google intends to free up the patents on VP8, or a new video encoding format derived from VP8, and promote it as a competitor to Ogg Theora and H.264. A patent-free VP8 would have all of Ogg Theora's core selling points without the current technical shortcomings. Google has an extensive history of buying out non-free products and releasing them from their shackles, and a move like this may very well make sense for them right now. They would be in an important strategic position to shape the format according to their vision, and they're probably in a better place than anyone to drive a video format to dominance on the Web.
If Google pushes out a patent-free video encoding format, prospects for adoption are looking pretty good. Naturally, Google's Chrome browser would support it, and it would become a first-class citizen on Google-owned YouTube. Mozilla seems willing to support any competitive patent-free video format in their Firefox browser (and they have loudly refused to support H.264 due to its patent-encumbered nature). With Firefox and Chrome on board with VP8, the Opera browser would likely follow suit.
The real challenge, as has been the case with Ogg Theora, would be in getting Apple's Safari and Microsoft's Internet Explorer to adopt it.
Apple has long been committed to the H.264 format across their devices and platforms, and they have so far refused to support Ogg Theora in Safari. Their criticisms have mainly been about the technical quality of the format. If they see VP8 has a significant improvement, they may consider adopting it, especially if it gains popular adoption on the Web.
Microsoft doesn't yet support native HTML 5 video in its Internet Explorer browser, but once it does, the browser will likely outsource the video decoding process to the underlying Windows operating system libraries. If this is the case, then Internet Explorer support for a given video format would depend on the version of Windows (or Windows Media Player), not the version of Internet Explorer itself. Considering that Windows doesn't currently ship with native support for either H.264 or Ogg Theora, they don't appear to have a legacy commitment to any of the major competing formats on the operating system level. However, Microsoft is trying to promote their Silverlight engine, which, like Adobe Flash, in many ways competes with HTML 5 video itself, and that may explain why they don't seem to be the most enthusiastic HTML 5 video supporters out there.
Tech-savvy users and developers have been pushing popular video sites to begin moving away from Flash toward HTML 5 video, and some of the biggest video sites—YouTube included—have already begun publicly experimenting with such a transition. But, with Mozilla's refusal to support H.264, Apple's refusal to support Ogg Theora, and Google's refusal to roll out Ogg Theora videos in YouTube, interested parties have been hoping for a miracle solution to the conflict. A patent-free video encoding format that can compete with H.264 on technical merits would be just that solution, but the question now is whether Google will deliver it.<>