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Free Software Foundation urges Google to open On2 codec

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Now that Google has completed its acquisition of video compression outfit On2 Technologies, a representative of the Free Software Foundation has urged Mountain View to release On2's latest codec under an irrevocable free license and use it to replace Adobe Flash on YouTube.

"With your purchase of On2, you now own both the world's largest video site (YouTube) and all the patents behind a new high performance video codec: VP8," reads a open letter to Google, posted to the Free Software Foundation (FSF) blogs.

"Just think what you can achieve by releasing the VP8 codec under an irrevocable royalty-free license and pushing it out to users on YouTube? You can end the web's dependence on patent-encumbered video formats and proprietary software (Flash)."

Today's YouTube still serves up video via Adobe's Flash, though Google has publicly pushed for a web-wide switch to the still gestating HTML5 video standard. All the major web browser vendors - Microsoft aside - have adopted the tag, but even among these HTML5 supporters, there's still a split over which video codec to use in tandem with the yet-to-be standard.

The HTML5 spec allows for any codec to be used with the tag, and while Mozilla and Opera have opted for the open and license-free Ogg Theora, Apple won't budge from the license-shackled H.264 - the same codec used with Flash - citing reasons of hardware support and an "uncertain" patent landscape.

Google has a foot in both camps, supporting Ogg and H.264 with its Chrome browser. The company is on record as saying that Ogg doesn't provide the performance needed for a site like YouTube. The company has introduced an experimental HTML5 player for the video site, but it uses H.264 exclusively.

In that FSF blog post, an Ogg representative claims that the open source codec was "already at least as good for web video" as H.264, citing a comparison here. "We never did agree with your objections to using it," he tells Google, before calling on the web giant to revamp YouTube with a free and open VP8. "But since you made the decision to purchase VP8, presumably you're confident it can meet even those objections, and using it on YouTube is a no-brainer."

Ogg Theora is actually based on an earlier On2 Technologies codec, VP3. In 2001, On2 opened VP3 under an irrevocable free license.

The FSF post goes on to say that Google shouldn't merely offer an open VP8 to YouTube uses, it should "encourage" them to use it. For example, the post says, Google could offer a free VP8-enabled plug-in or browser to anyone who visits YouTube without one.

"Apple has had the mettle to ditch Flash on the iPhone and the iPad - albeit for suspect reasons and using abhorrent methods (DRM) - and this has pushed web developers to make Flash-free alternatives of their pages. You could do the same with YouTube, for better reasons, and it would be a death-blow to Flash's dominance in web video."

We question whether yet another plug-in is the best of ideas, but the post has other ideas. "You could interest users with HD videos in free formats, for example, or aggressively invite users to upgrade their browsers (instead of upgrading Flash). Steps like these on YouTube would quickly push browser support for free formats to 50% and beyond, and they would slowly increase the number of people who never bother installing Flash."

But first, Google must actually open the thing up - something the company hasn't committed to doing. "You can use your purchase of On2 merely as a bargaining chip to achieve your own private solution to the problem, but that's both a cop-out and a strategic mistake," the FSF post continues. "Without making VP8 a free format, it's just another video codec. And what use is another video format with patent-limited browser support?

"You owe it to the public and to the medium that made you successful to solve this problem, for all of us, forever...We'll know if you do otherwise that your interest is not user freedom on the web, but Google's dominance. We all want you to do the right thing. Free VP8, and use it on YouTube!" ®

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