Google launches WebM open source video codec

Based on VP8, Ogg Vorbis and Matroska

THERE’S CURRENTLY SOMETHING of a disagreement going on between the various web browser manufacturers with regards to which video codec is going to become the standard for HTML5 and it seems like we just got another alternative courtesy of Google and its new WebM video codec. The interesting thing here is that apart from Google, both Opera and Netscape are backing an open source option for HTML5, so it looks like the battle for the next gen video codec for online video just warmed up.

To give you some background information as to the origins of WebM, we have to go back a little bit in time. In February Google purchased a company called On2 Technologies which specialised in making video codecs and Ogg Theora is based on its open source VP3 codec. For those that aren’t familiar with the HTML5 video codec options, Ogg Theora was one of the potential candidates as the next gen video standard. However, VP3 is a rather old codec which launched way back in 2001, although Ogg Theora is a development of the VP3 codec.

WebM on the other hand is the latest video codec from On2 Technologies – also known as VP8 – which in turn is a development of VP7 which was a competing standard to H.264. As it stands, Apple and Microsoft are currently backing the H.264 standard as the best option for a future standard video codec for the web. However, there are some caveats here which we mentioned in our piece about Opera’s take on HTML5 and CSS3. Let’s try not to confuse things too much here, as it could get quite complex, but in simple terms, WebM is open source while H.264 is not.

WebM has some other inherent advantages over H.264, despite the latter being used by many consumer camcorders and even digital cameras. WebM uses the open source Ogg Vorbis audio codec and the video and audio is packaged in a container based on a subset of Matroska. If you’re not familiar with Matroska, then you look for some MKV files which is the file extension used by Matroska. One big advantage that Matroska has is the ability to easily add multiple audio and subtitle tracks, something many competing solutions lack.

The great thing about WebM is the fact that Google is backing it, but if it was Google and Google alone, it wouldn’t be a big hit. The good news is that both Netscape and Opera have already added support for WebM in their latest browser builds. Now add the fact that Adobe, Skype, Sorenson and a host of other software companies have already offered to back the new format and even possibly Microsoft with Internet Explorer 9 and you got a sure fire hit. Add to this the fact that AMD, ARM, Broadcom, Freescale, Imagination, Marvell, MIPS, Nvidia, Qualcomm and Texas Instruments are all backing it and you got some pretty solid hardware support as well. We’re not sure where Intel is in all this, but hopefully we’ll see Intel coming aboard as well.

HTML5 is still far from ready for prime time, but you can already check out WebM encoded videos on YouTube if you have an HTML5 compatible browser with support for WebM, such as Chrome, Firefox or Opera. For all its flaws as a big corporation, you have to give some massive credit to Google when it comes to open source web solutions, as well as three, or even possibly four out of the five major browser manufacturers behind a unified, open source video standard for the web, it looks like the potential concerns of H.264 becoming the standard for video on the web will never be realised.S|A

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