Google backs open codec against patent trolls

'Very confident' in face of Jobsian FUD

Google I/O Google is "very confident" that the newly open-sourced VP8 video codec will stand up to the sort of patent attack Steve Jobs warned of when he defended Apple's decision to shun VP8's predecessor, the open-source Ogg Theora.

On Wednesday, at its annual developer conference in San Francisco, California, Google told the world it had open sourced VP8 under a royalty-free license, and it's already using the codec to encode large videos on YouTube. VP8 will be combined with the Ogg Vorbis audio codec and a subset of the Matroska container format to create a new media standard dubbed WebM.

Google acquired VP8 this spring when it purchased video compression outfit On2 Technologies in a deal valued at $124.6m dollars, and it was widely expected that the company would open source the codec as a way of countering the patented H.264.

Currently, Firefox and Opera use the open source Ogg Theora for HTML5 video. Google uses both Ogg and H.264, saying Ogg doesn't provide the performance needed on a site like YouTube. The two other big-name browser makers, Apple and Microsoft, have shunned Ogg entirely in favor of the H.264.

Apple has said that the prefers H.264 due to Ogg's "uncertain patent landscape" and its lack of hardware support, and Microsoft has made similar noises, saying that the intellectual property rights of Ogg and other codecs are "less clear".

In a private email, Apple chief executive Steve Jobs even went so far as to say that unnamed forces were putting together a patent pool to "go after" Ogg Theora. Today, when The Reg asked if VP8 was vulnerable to patent attack, Google product manager Mike Jazayeri indicated this isn't a big concern for the company.

"We have done a pretty through analysis of VP8 and On2 Technologies prior to the acquisition and since then, and we are very confident with the technology and that's why we're open sourcing," he said.

But some have asked for more than generalities. "Google says it holds certain patents on the VP8 video codec that is part of WebM but there's no assurance that Google's patents are the only patents required," noted open source advocate Florian Muller tells The Reg.

"What about patents that third parties could assert? While it appears to be a nice gesture if a major player releases software on open source terms, it's imperative to perform a well-documented patent clearance.

"Developers should be provided with detailed explanations why Google believes that no one adopting WebM will have to fear allegations of patent infringement."

Google has open sourced the VP8 codec under a new license. Essentially, it's the BSD with a few modifications. "There is additional language around the patent provision," Jazayeri said. "Basically, it helps ensure that the community that adopts this can't claim patent infringement."

In legalese, the license says: "If You or your agent or exclusive licensee institute or order or agree to the institution of patent litigation against any entity (including a cross-claim or counterclaim in a lawsuit) alleging that this implementation of VP8 or any code incorporated within this implementation of VP8 constitutes direct or contributory patent infringement, or inducement of patent infringement, then any rights granted to You under this License for this implementation of VP8 shall terminate as of the date such litigation is filed."

Google has not received approval for the license from the Open Source Initiative (OSI). And it has not yet approached the OSI. "We will certainly follow the best practices," Jazayeri said.

Asked if Google had approached Apple and Microsoft about VP8, Jazayeri said the company had "reached out to everyone" - meaning all major browser makers. But that's all he would say. Following Google's announcement, Microsoft's Internet Explorer general manager Dean Hachamovitch tossed up a blog post that reiterated Microsoft's commitment to H.264 - this will be used in the upcoming IE9 for HTML5 video - but he said Microsoft would allow VP8 playback as long as users installed the codec themselves.

"We are strongly committed to making sure that in IE9 you can safely view all types of content in all widely used formats. When it comes to video and HTML5, we’re all in. In its HTML5 support, IE9 will support playback of H.264 video as well as VP8 video when the user has installed a VP8 codec on Windows," he wrote.

No word from Jobs. Somebody please send him an email (sjobs@apple.com). He doesn't like us.

Mozilla and Opera are already offering VP8 in developer previews of their browsers, and both were on hand today to lend their support to Google's announcement. Mozilla vp of engineering Mike Shaver told The Reg that according to the organization's preliminary tests, VP8's performance per bitrate matches that of H.264, and he said it exhibits similar CPU utilization. It significantly outperforms Ogg Theora.

Hardware vendors such as AMD and Nvidia have also backed VP8, and Shaver believes that as more and more organizations get behind the technology and its performance continues to improve, Apple and Microsoft can be brought on board as well. He said it would "be a problem" if the two don't join the crowd, as this will force web developers to deal with two separate video formats.

Starting today, Google is using WebM to encode all YouTube videos larger than 720p. But of course, it's still encoding them in Flash as well. Asked if it had plans to remove Flash from YouTube, Google tossed us some boilerplate about how Flash is still a relevant and useful technology.

Adobe was also on hand to announce that it will use VP8 in Flash - at some point. Speaking with The Reg, Opera CTO Hakon Wium Lie praised Adobe's move, saying that at the very least this will allow web developers to encode video for both Flash and HTML5 on Chrome, Firefox and Opera. ®

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