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WebM Poised to Bring Open Video to the Masses

The long struggle for open video on the Web may finally be over for Linux users. Last week, Google announced WebM at its Google I/O conference. What's it mean for you? In the long run, a totally open media format for the Web, plus the backing of enough companies and organizations to push open media over the top online.

Google I/O brought a lot of interesting developments, but one of the most interesting for Linux users might be the announcement of WebM. Finally, Linux will be a first-class platform for media.

WebM isn’t the first effort to bring open video to the Web, but it has a number of things going for it that other solutions do not. Namely, it has the weight and backing of one of the largest companies on the Web (that’d be Google), and buy-in from most of the major browser projects and vendors.

So what is WebM, exactly? It’s an open and royalty free media format for video and audio on the Web. It will be supported as part of the HTML5 video element, so at some point in the nearish future you’ll be able to play videos natively in the browser in a high-quality open format. WebM is being optimized for serving content online, and for lower-powered computers. You can bet that Google has been looking hard at performance on netbooks as ChromeOS moves towards release.

Why Not Theora?

The first question some might have is why Theora wasn’t chosen instead of yet another format. WebM does harness Vorbis for audio, but video is VP8 — a high quality video codec that’s available under a BSDish license. VP8 is considered higher quality than Theora, closer in quality to the H.264 codec that’s been backed by Apple and others for HTML5 video.

It doesn’t mean that Theora is going away, though. An interview Mozilla’s Mike Shaver indicates that Mozilla will continue to support Theora and contribute to its development as it makes sense for Firefox. However, Theora needed more muscle than just Mozilla to succeed. Even if Mozilla continues to grab market share with Firefox, it doesn’t do much good if there’s no Theora content to consume. And few media producers were rushing to put content online in Theora excepting the usual suspects that support open specs just to support open specs.

With WebM, Google has not only rounded up a decent plurality of browser support, the company also can help push WebM via YouTube — which it’s already doing by encoding videos in WebM format.

It’s worth noting that even if Theora never achieves mainstream success, that doesn’t mean that it “failed.” Theora, and the backing by Mozilla and Opera, may have been very instrumental in helping to motivate Google to open source VP8 in the first place, and it’s helped to drive awareness of the importance of open video and media on the Web.

WebM Right Now

WebM is not mainstream just yet. But for those who like to live on the edge, or just have overwhelming curiosity about upcoming video formats, you have a few options.

Chromium users should be able to get WebM in the nightly trunk builds as of this week, and WebM will show up in Google Chrome’s dev channel starting the week of May 24. Remember, Chrome and Chromium are slightly different projects.

Opera users can find support in the Opera Labs builds, though the WebM support is currently limited to the Ubuntu builds for some reason.

And, last but not least, Mozilla Firefox users can find some nightly builds with WebM support.

Not that there’s a ton of content online right now to view anyway, But if you really want to see WebM in action, try out one of the aforementioned browsers and head over to YouTube. As described on the WebM project site, you can play WebM videos if you have a supported browser and add a WebM string to a search. You should see “HTML5 webm” in the toolbar of the video player if all is correct. If you try this in a browser that doesn’t have WebM, it should fall back to H.264.

Want to encode video in WebM? The project has already released some tools to do so. This includes some patches to FFmpeg (not in a release yet), the VP8 SDK to build support into applications, links to commercial tools, and DirectShow filters for Windows users. Note that Gstreamer plugins should be coming soon as well, which will help Linux players like Totem and Banshee play WebM content as well.

Patents

Google, Mozilla, and Opera have already stepped up to support WebM. Even Microsoft has said it will support WebM in IE9, which leaves one conspicuous absence: Apple.

The folks in Cupertino have already hinted at patent warfare over Theora and “other ‘open source’ codecs”, which might mean that the WebM group will see some patent attacks over V8. Jason Garrett-Glaser, an x264 and FFmpeg developer, has written up an in-depth analysis of VP8.

Garrett-Glaser in his summary says that “WebM 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.” He goes on to say it’s not certain that it’s covered by patents, but would like more evidence as to why it isn’t. Certainly the MPEG-LA folks, who hold the H.264 patents, are going to be looking at WebM unkindly and searching for any possible violations.

Even though there’s a possibility of patent nastiness, one hopes that Google and its WebM partners have planned for that contingency. But expect some saber rattling and FUD. And caution from open source projects about adopting WebM if they’re concerned about patent issues.

If you’re a AV geek, it’s well worth reading Garrett-Glaser’s full post deconstructing VP8 and seeing what technical complaints he raises. In short, he doesn’t seem to find VP8 quite as good as H.264 and has some serious complaints about the spec being “copy-pasted C” rather than a proper spec.

So what’s the takeaway? It probably isn’t difficult to make the case that WebM is flawed, but when has that stopped a format from becoming dominant? If I had to place bets between H.264 and WebM on the desktop, I’d be betting for a duality, but with WebM ultimately coming out on top. Google’s support is going to make this hard to beat, and that’s a very good thing for Linux users. Finally, an open standard for media stands a chance of being a first-class citizen on the Web.

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