MS embraces/shuns Google's open video codec

Redmond lawyers redefine 'the open web'

Microsoft has teamed with the Google-backed WebM project to announce software that allows Internet Explorer 9 and other Windows applications to render video using WebM, the web-media format that Google open sourced under a royalty-free license last year.

But the onus is on the user to install the software. Internet Explorer 9 comes pre-equipped with the royalty-encumbered H.264 codec, and it will continue to include only H.264. Microsoft remains adamant that open source WebM lacks the legal protection required to bundle it with IE.

On Tuesday, The Register reported that Google had introduced a WebM plug-in for Internet Explorer 9, after noticing that the download page offering the software. But Google has now changed the page to indicate that this is not a browser plug-in per se, and in a blog post, the WebM project - aka Google - explained that the software in fact integrates WebM with Windows through the Microsoft Media Foundation (MF) API.

This means it can render WebM in multiple Windows applications, including Windows Media Player as well as Internet Explorer 9. Google and Microsoft call the package Microsoft Media Foundation (MF) components for WebM, and according to Google, Microsoft helped build the software.

WebM is based on the VP8 video codec Google acquired when it purchased On2 Technologies last year in a deal worth $124.6 million, and it's meant for use with the HTML5 video tag. Google envisions the format as a royalty-free standard that replaces H.264, the royalty-encumbered codec built into both Microsoft Internet Explorer and Apple's Safari for use with HTML5 video.

Last year, after Google unveiled WebM, Microsoft said that although Internet Explorer 9 would not include WebM, users would have the option of installing the codec on their own. And on Wednesday, Microsoft's Internet Explorer general manager Dean Hachamovitch joined the WebM project in announcing the release of the WebM components for Windows.

"Today IE9 can play HTML5 video in both the industry-standard H.264 format and the newer WebM format," he said in a blog post. "With the WebM Project’s release of WebM Components for IE9 (Preview), Windows customers running IE9 can play WebM videos in Web pages. IE9 is the only browser today committed to supporting both formats directly."

But, as he said, you'll have to install WebM on your own. Microsoft is backing WebM but it won't put the thing in its browser. Redmond, you see, has a certain aversion to open source software.

"As an industry," Hachamovitch went on to say, "we still face many legitimate, unanswered questions about liability, risks, and support for WebM, such as: Who bears the liability and risk for consumers, businesses, and developers until the legal system resolves the intellectual property issues? When and how does Google genuinely make room for the Open Web Standards community to engage? What is the plan for restoring consistency across devices, Web services, and the PC?"

Google has told The Reg that after a thorough review of the situation, it believes WebM is on solid legal ground. But it hasn't provided specifics on its patent portfolio, let alone indemnification for WebM users. And the MPEG-LA, the organization that licenses H.264, is in the process of putting together a patent pool for WebM, challenging Google's claims that the format is royalty-free.

Microsoft is no mere bystander in this battle. Along with Apple, it's part of the existing H.264 patent pool.

On one level, Redmond has reached a compromise with Mountain View: it's backing the WebM components for Windows. But at the end of his post, Microsoft's Hachamovitch took an overt swipe at the company's biggest rival. "The people who build and use the Web deserve practical and consistent video support rather than ideology," he said, pointing readers to a Google blog post with that "ideology" hyperlink.

The post is the one where Google told the world it was pulling H.264 from Chrome. That has yet to happen – Chrome 10 still includes the codec – but Google says it will pull H.264 soon.

"To companies like Google, the license fees may not be material, but to the next great video startup and those in emerging markets these fees stifle innovation," Google's post read. "But it's not just the license fees; an even more important consideration is the pace of innovation and what incentives drive development. No community development process is perfect, but it’s generally the case that the community-driven development of the core web platform components is done with user experience, security and performance in mind.

"When technology decisions are clouded by conflicting incentives to collect patent royalties, the priorities and outcome are less clear and the process tends to take a lot longer. This is not good for the long term health of web video. We believe the web will suffer if there isn't a truly open, rapidly evolving, community developed alternative and have made significant investments to ensure there is one."

Microsoft bristles at such talk. The company believes its approach is the more "open" of the two. "Working through [the legal] questions is part of moving the Web forward," Hachamovitch said at the end of his post. "The Open Web is a product of consensus and open dialog. This post is part of the dialog to move the Web forward."

Well, Microsoft is at least claiming to believe that its approach is the more open of the two. Its stance has less to do with openness and more do to with lawyers. ®

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