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WebM, Google's Open Media Project Explained

By Paul Lilly

Google takes aim at H.264 with its royalty free video codec.

In the coming months, you're going to hear a lot about WebM, the forthcoming open-source, royalty-free media file format being developed for the web.  WebM uses the the VP8 codec Google acquired from On2 earlier this year and it has the backing of several industry heavyweights, including Mozilla, Opera, Adobe, AMD, ARM, Skype, and a whole bunch more. As of this moment, WebM isn't part of the HTML5 spec, so why should anyone outside of those with a vested interest care?
 
The answer to that is because we all have a vested interest, perhaps not in WebM specifically, but in removing the politics currently hamstringing web video from playing back on all devices. This is best underscored by the dispute between Apple and Adobe, and it doesn't even matter where the blame lies - the real losers are still the users who can't watch Flash content on their iPad or iPhone. By the end of the decade, this loser pool could expand well beyond just those who use Apple devices, and here's why. The H.264 video codec is steamrolling the web and quickly becoming the accepted standard. In reality, it's a darn good codec, and it's free to boot, so what's not to like, right? Ask that question again in five years, because in 2015, the MPEG-LA consortium, which owns the H.264 codec, plans to start charging royalties for its use. If we're to put a decidedly negative spin on this, you can think of the situation as a drug dealer handing out free samples until everyone is hooked, and then pulling the rug out from underneath them.
 

 
here for a lengthy and detailed analysis of how the two codecs stack up on the technical side.
 
In addition to video, WebM also includes Vorbis, which is already an open-source and prominent audio codec, and a container format based on a subset of the Matroska media container. Put all these elements together and suddenly the web looks promising again, if WebM succeeds, that is. In the coming months, you can expect player plug-ins and encoders to feature built-in support for WebM, and not surprisingly, Google said it will make YouTube videos support it as well. Chrome, Firefox, Opera, and to some extent even Internet Explorer 9 are all on board, but the biggest challenge facing the WebM project is that H.264 has gained such a foothold on the industry that it's going to be tough to convince content creators, as well as device makers, to embrace WebM. It's definitely going to be an uphill battle for the WebM project, but it certainly helps when you have industry giants like Google pushing not only from behind, but within.
  
  
Do you think the WebM project will succeed? Do we even need an open source codec, or are the royalty fears surrounding H.264 much ado about nothing?