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Is Google spending $106.5m to open source a codec?

The price of web standards

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After acquiring On2’s video compression codecs in a deal valued at approximately $106.5 million in stock, will Google simply turn around and open source them?

It certainly looks that way.

In both the press release and the blog post announcing the acquisition of On2, Google makes a point of saying that it believes “high-quality video compression technology should be a part of the web platform” — and that On2 is a means of achieving that goal.

As is typical of Googlespeak, this tells us close to nothing. But if you also consider the company's so far fruitless efforts to push through a video tag for HTML 5 — the still-gestating update to the web’s hypertext markup language — the On2 acquisition looks an awful lot like an effort to solve this browser-maker impasse.

When it comes to built-in video compression, Apple Safari uses H.264. Firefox and Opera use the open and license-free Ogg Theora. Google Chrome uses both. And Microsoft’s Internet Explorer uses, well, nothing, continuing to rely on plug-ins like Adobe Flash and its own Silverlight for video. All which makes for tough going when the browser makers sit down to discuss an HTML5 video tag (or — in the case of Microsoft — when they don’t sit down).

In late June, with a post to the open WHATWG (Web Hypertext Application Technology Working Group) email list, Google’s Ian Hickson announced he had “reluctantly come to the conclusion that there is no suitable codec that all vendors are willing to implement and ship”. As a result, he removed two subsections of the HTML where codecs were required, leaving the matter undefined — at least for the time being.

As the man who edits the HTML 5 spec, Hickson considered a Ogg Theora requirement, but eventually decided this was a non-starter. “It wouldn’t help get us true interoperabiliy, since the people who are willing to implement it are willing to do so regardless of the spec, and the people who aren’t are not going to be swayed by what the spec says,” he wrote.

Obviously, Mozilla, Opera, and Google have no objection to Ogg Theora as the standard codec. But according to Hickson — who joined Google from Opera — Apple refuses to use Ogg Theora in Quicktime and Safari because of scant hardware support and an “uncertain patent landscape”. Apparently, Apple is worried that the patent holders behind the Theora technology will come knocking with a lawsuit.

What’s more, Mozilla accuses Google of fouling up Ogg Theora’s chances of widespread adoption by continuing to use Flash and H.264 on YouTube. “I do not like the situation on the Web today, where to use all the content you need to have a license to Flash,” Mozilla director of ecosystem development Mike Shaver posted to WHATWG earlier in June.

“And I’m saddened that Google is choosing to use its considerable leverage — especially in the Web video space, where they could be a king-maker if ever there was one — to create a future in which one needs an H.264 patent license to view much of the video content on the Web.”

Microsoft? According to Hickson, they haven’t said a word about anything.

Pushing Microsoft to the side, Hickson said he would return Ogg Theora to the spec if one of two scenarios played out:

  • Ogg Theora encoders continue to improve. Off-the-shelf hardware Ogg Theora decoder chips become available. Google ships support for the codec for long enough without getting sued that Apple’s concern regarding submarine patents is reduced. → Theora becomes the de facto codec for the Web.
  • The remaining H.264 baseline patents owned by companies who are not willing to license them royalty-free expire, leading to H.264 support being available without license fees. → H.264 becomes the de facto codec for the Web.

But perhaps there’s a third option: Google acquiring On2 and promptly open sourcing its latest video codecs: VP6, VP7, and VP8.

On2’s VP3 codec is the actual basis for Ogg Theora. In 2001, On2 open sourced VP3 under an irrevocable free license through an agreement with The Xiph.org Foundation.

According to Google open source guru Chris DiBona, the company continues to avoid Ogg Theora on YouTube because it can’t match the performance of H.264. But if Google open sources a newer On2 codec and applies that to YouTube, this would ease Mozilla’s objections. Google has already mocked up a Flash-free YouTube. And with Google controlling On2’s patents, it would have that much more leverage in its efforts to convince Apple that it won’t be sued.

Microsoft? Micrsoft will play hard-to-get on the standards issue no matter what you do. So you might as well as spend your $106.5m and free some code. ®

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