Google weighed in on the web-video wars on Wednesday by rolling out WebM
, a new royalty-free media format. Apple has been pushing for broader acceptance of HTML5 video and the H.264 media format as standard, and so a user emailed Steve Jobs
to ask his opinion of Google's proposal. Jobs didn't reply directly, but pointed the user to a damning screed by an H.264 developer, which suggested that WebM's video codec was so close to H.264 that it might violate some patents.
Steve Jobs's antipathy for Flash is well-known, and even Adobe acknowledges that it doesn't run well on Macs. As a result, Apple has advocated HTML5 for embedded video, which would mandate a particular video codec be supported by all HTML5-compliant browsers. The problem is that the HTML5 working group is split between supporters of the open-source Ogg Theora format and the H.264 standard, which is encumbered by licensing fees. Apple and Google had both come down on the H.264 side of the debate... until now.
Enter WebM. Google's new format
consists of VP8, a video codec developed by On2 (a company that was bought by Google last year), the open source Vorbis audio format, and a container format based on a subset of the Matroska media container. On2 was the company that created the VP3 format that Ogg Theora is built on; VP8, then, is sort of a cousin to Theora. And therein lies the problem for some. Steve Jobs has asserted before that Theora itself uses patented technology. This issue persists in VP8, at least as far as H.264 developer Jason Garrett-Glaser is concerned. He pored through the code and wrote a long, technically-detailed rant about VP8
, concluding (in the "Summary for the Lazy," which is about all I could read) that "VP8 copies way too much from H.264 for anyone sane to be comfortable with it, no matter whose word is behind the claim of being patent-free."
Steve Jobs's silent agreement with that sentiment, combined with the statement earlier this month
that he is throwing the (significant) weight of Apple behind a defense of H.264 patents, may well create an atmosphere of fear that may dissuade developers from supporting the new format. Despite the fact that Microsoft has already signaled that IE9 will support WebM, in the end, it may all come down to fear of litigation rather than performance and portability. And is that any way to set a standard?