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Saturday, January 15, 2011, 01:00 am PT (04:00 am ET)

Google reaffirms intent to derail HTML5 H.264 video with WebM browser plugins


Freedom's just another word for nothing else to pay

However Google doesn't sell either Android or Chrome OS; it gives them away. Microsoft sells Windows, while Apple bundles Mac OS X and the iOS as part of its hardware sales. That leaves Google as the only significant platform vendor that won't be selling its platforms, but will still need to be licensing commercial technologies, and in particular H.264 video playback, if the world continues to standardize on H.264 for video distribution.

So in this dispute, Google isn't standing up for open standards, it's standing up for the right to push ads through platforms based on free operating system software, relieving it from having to deal with Microsoft and Apple and other platform vendors. The only way it can afford to do that is if video is delivered without technologies that cost money.

Google has little stake in delivering high quality video; it serves moderate quality web videos through YouTube that could be (and have been) delivered with less than start-of-the-art codec technologies. Apple and Microsoft both deliver HD video products, sell commercial movies, and have plans to deliver the future of HD television. Google's TV strategy primarily revolves around injecting its ads into other broadcasters' content, a concept that so far has been an unmitigated disaster.

Google therefore sees HTML5 video as desperately needing a free video codec to prevent it from having to sell its platform, which could otherwise be free. In order to make that happen, Google purchased On2 and hastily released that company's commercially failing VP8 video codec as an open standard under the new brand WebM. The codec isn't as sophisticated as the open H.264, in part because it was created internally by On2 as a proprietary product.

Why H.264 is better

H.264, on the other hand, is a pool of the intellectual property and engineering talents of every significant organization currently involved in developing video technology, ranging from Sony and Philips to Apple and Microsoft. All those companies participating in the H.264 standard have agreed to pool their patent claims and charge all users a fair, nominal royalty fee to benefit those that collectively created the technologies that make H.264 so efficient and sophisticated. They're also collectively working on future enhancements to H.264 and its eventual replacement, H.265.

H.264 is also much more mature, having been adopted as the preferred codec by Apple's QuickTime 7 back in April of 2005. Since then, Apple has incorporated H.264 support throughout its product line, ranging from desktop systems to mobile devices with hardware-based codec acceleration.

The rest of the industry has also adopted H.264, ranging from mobile devices and cell phones to HD disc formats (such as Blu-ray) to cable and satellite TV transmissions to web video, from Google's own YouTube to Vimeo to Brightcove to Adobe's preferred Flash Player codec. The actual H.264 specification is continually evolving, with new and expanded profiles and amendments.

Microsoft's competing Windows Media codec (aka VC-1) is used by its Xbox 360 and within Silverlight, and was the primary codec in the now discontinued HD-DVD format. It's included in the Blu-ray specification, but most Blu-ray titles are encoded using H.264. Windows Media codecs are based on the MPEG-2 H.263 specification.

Sorenson's proprietary video codecs were once the primary codecs used by Apple's QuickTime, until sophisticated MPEG specifications began to emerge as industry standards. Sorenson 3 was actually based on the MPEG-4 H.264 draft specification. Apple moved to its own internal implementation of H.264 in 2005. The MPEG 4 container format is based on QuickTime, which Apple contributed to MPEG in 1998.

Timeline of video codecs


The Open Source ideal

In the minds of free software advocates, the notion that anyone should benefit from the licensing of their own technology is ideologically abhorrent. Thus, they've been seeking to develop a video codec technology assembled by volunteers that can be used without anyone paying for it. The problem is that you get what you pay for.

Until Google swept in to buy On2, open source advocates had standardized on Ogg Theora, a nearly decade-old specification based on an earlier proprietary codec that had been abandoned by On2. It was neither efficient nor commercially viable nor capable of being decoded by existing hardware, a feature that is essential to efficient video playback by mobile devices.

These show-stopper problems did not thwart open source advocates, because there were no other credible free alternatives. With Google's purchase of On2 and the open sourcing of On2's more modern VP8 as WebM, it appeared that Ogg Theora could be replaced with a more modern version of a codec that the very wealthy Google would be supporting, one day perhaps even eclipsing the sophistication of H.264.

A key problem is that all of the catchup progress in developing WebM's video codec must pass through a number of areas that are patent minefields. WebM simply can't be improved without running afoul of the vast patent pool of all the companies collectively working to define MPEG standards like today's H.264 and the upcoming H.265 that will one day replace it. Everyone knows this, and many observers, including the MPEG Licensing Authority that manages H.264, also believe that WebM already infringes upon its members' patented technologies.

Why Google isn't afraid of patents

Google must also know this, but it isn't afraid of running into patent issues because it isn't directly earning any money selling anything that might infringe upon those patents. If Google's Android oversteps patents held by Nokia or Apple or Microsoft (and it allegedly has), those companies won't sue Google, they'll sue HTC and Motorola and other Google licensees that are using Android to sell their hardware (as they already have).

Unlike hardware makers such as Apple, Microsoft, Motorola and Nokia, Google hasn't been the target of nearly as many patent lawsuits. Google's first major brush with patent lawsuits, when Overture sued the company for infringing upon its paid search business model, was settled by Yahoo buying Overture, and then Google giving Yahoo billions of its stock to prop it up as a phony competitor.

That cost Google nearly nothing, while all the talent from Overture subsequently flowed to Microsoft and Google as Yahoo crushed the acquired Overture team under its own incompetent leadership, killing more birds for Google: a major competitor, the potential threat of a monopoly investigation, and the need for hire additional talented employees.

Google's act, arguably pulling off the world's most blatant patent infringement and then building a company worth $200 billion on top of it, was simply an overture to its next: ripping off the world's biggest consumer technology product using a clone of the world's largest write-once, run anywhere platform. While Apple didn't sue Google over the iPhone (something that would be hard to seek damages over, given that Google gives away its Android software), Java's new owner Oracle decided it would.

Oracle expects to demand licensing revenues from Google's distribution of Android. That would force Google to either create a new, non-infringing mobile platform from scratch, or begin paying licensing fees to Oracle that might cause the Android project to be worth less to Google than it earns from Android's mobile ad revenue. However, that case hasn't been settled yet, so Google is currently emboldened to replicate its success in stomping on others' patents and simply paying them off afterward, much as Microsoft did in the 90s.

This confidence is also behind Google's rapid open-sourcing of On2's VP8. Unlike Netscape's methodical open sourcing of its browser to create Mozilla (which took years) or the very slow process Sun took in opening up Solaris and portions of Java, or similarly cautious open source projects created by other companies (including Apple's efforts to open up its Darwin OS), Google simply threw the WebM specification on the web almost immediately after acquiring On2.

Like a drunk teen barreling down the freeway in the wrong direction, Google seems confident that nothing bad will happen because the company hasn't yet experienced any significant problems doing that sort of thing in the past. At the same time, if Google were truly confident that its WebM is free of patent hazards, it would indemnify third parties who implement it from patent threats. It hasn't. Google is essentially gambling with the resources of its hardware partners. Even if they lose, Google still wins.

On page 3 of 3: Open source vs. opening other's source, Outlook for WebM not so good