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google-faviconAt last week's Google I/O 2010 conference, Google made a long-anticipated announcement: VP8, the highly competitive video compression technology Google recently acquired, is now an open standard. Google has combined VP8 with other open technologies to form the new WebM video format, which is coming out of the gate with support from a wide range of software and hardware vendors.

This development comes at a critical time in the emergence of next-generation video technology on the Web. The upcoming HTML 5 standard, which is already seeing experimental support in all major Web browsers, defines a new and improved method for embedding video content in webpages, but it has failed to find a consensus on which baseline video formats should be used. The two major options have been the high-quality but patent-encumbered H.264 encoding format, or the technically inferior but apparently patent-free Theora format. The companies behind the Firefox and Opera Web browsers have refused to support H.264 due to its non-free nature, while Internet Explorer and Safari have committed to H.264 due to its technical superiority and the fact that Microsoft and Apple have already been licensing the use of H.264 in other applications. Google Chrome had been taking the neutral stance of supporting both formats.

This February, Google finalized their purchase of On2, a company that develops video compression technology. Its most recent product, VP8, has been advertised as a true technical competitor to H.264, much more so than On2's earlier technologies that formed the basis for Theora. Now that Google has opened up the VP8 format and waived all patents on the technology, it would appear that VP8 can claim the top selling points of both Theora and H.264.

Like H.264 and Theora, the VP8 technology itself is essentially a method for compressing (and later decompressing) raw video image data to minimize the filesize while retaining as much quality as possible. The video image data is little more than a timed series of images, with no audio. So, in order to make a watchable video with sound, other technologies must be combined with the VP8 data. Google has chosen the highly-efficient Vorbis standard for the audio, and put the video and audio inside a single "container" format based on the free Matroska standard. The whole enchilada is what Google is calling "WebM," what they hope will become the de facto standard video format on the Web.

WebM logoRight off the bat, Google is announcing WebM with an impressive list of supporters. The latest in-development versions of Firefox, Chrome and Opera already support it. Upcoming versions of Flash will support it. Internet Explorer general manager Dean Hachamovitch confirmed that Internet Explorer 9 will support it for users who install the codec (it won't be installed by default until Microsoft feels comfortable about its maturity). Hardware acceleration is an important part of the equation, and Google has announced deals with several big-name hardware vendors to get hardware acceleration in their devices. And, of course, Google-owned YouTube is in the process of generating WebM versions of every video in their system.

The format war isn't over yet, though. H.264 still has a lot of inertia, and Apple seems to have invested heavily in its success. Google's ownership of YouTube certainly puts it in a powerful strategic position, but only if it makes the WebM version somehow more valuable to users than YouTube's existing H.264 version, or if they discontinue the H.264 version altogether. The latter may be a risky maneuver, since the H.264 version is the only one Apple's iPhone and iPad devices can currently play, due to their lack of Flash support. Shutting it down could be seen as anticompetitive behavior and get Google into a lot of hot water with government regulators. Instead, I suspect Google will continue focusing on building a coalition of supporting vendors, as well as improving the encoding tools and pushing hardware support to ubiquity, in hopes of making the format more appealing to Apple. <>