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Opera CTO still sour on Google native code plugin

The future is WebGL. And WebM (he hopes)

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Google I/O Officially, Opera CTO Håkon Wium Lie was at Google's developer conference to discuss WebP – Mountain View's open source effort to replace the aging JPEG image compression format – but he'd rather talk about WebM, the video format he calls the last missing piece in the standard web platform.

This morning, at Google I/O in downtown San Francisco, Wium Lie delivered a presentation on Opera's use of WebP, a new "lossy" image compression format open sourced by Google last fall. Like Google Chrome, Opera's desktop browser can now display images encoded with WebP, but the format is also used by Opera Turbo, the browser maker's traffic-compression service.

Turbo – used to drive the company's Opera Mini mobile browser but also available with other Opera browsers – routes pages through Opera proxy servers and compresses them before sending them down to the client. Previously, Wium Lie tells The Reg, Turbo would use JPEG to compress JPEG images, and this double JPEG compression, he says, resulted in noticeable imperfections – "artifacts" – around the edges of images. In switching to WebP, he says, Opera has not only eliminated these artifacts but improved compression as well.

Available with Opera 11.10, the new Turbo provides 35 per cent smaller pages and is 15 per cent faster than the version included with Opera 11, according to the company.

Microsoft, Mozilla, and Apple have yet to adopt WebP in their own browsers, and Wium Lie certainly hopes they will. JPEG is showing its age, he says. But his real concern is WebM, the video format on which WebP is based.

At its last I/O conference a year ago, Google open sourced WebM, and it was immediately adopted by both Opera and Mozilla. The format is based on the VP8 video codec Google acquired with its $124.6 million purchase of On2 Technologies, and by open sourcing the technology, Google aimed to provide a royalty-free codec for use with the HTML5 video tag.

The trouble is that Apple and Microsoft have yet to adopt WebM in Safari and IE, though Microsoft has teamed with Google to build WebM software that Windows users can install on their own. This software provides WebM support to IE as well as other Windows apps.

Microsoft, you see, is playing both sides of the issue. "As an industry," Microsoft IE man Hachamovitch has said, "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?"

Apple has not specifically addressed its reason for steering clear of WebM, but Steve Jobs himself has indicated that the company sees open source codecs as a legal minefield. Wium Lie declined to discuss either Apple's stance or Microsoft's, but he's hopeful the format will eventually win out.

Opera was confident enough to roll WebM into its browser, but like others, Wium Lie is waiting to see whether the MPEG LA – the organization that licenses H.264, the royalty-encumbered codec used by Apple and Microsoft – will take aim at WebM. MPEG LA has said that it's building a patent pool for WebM, meaning it will attempt to collect royalties on the technology. The organization believes WebM makes use of technologies covered by the H.264 patent pool.

The other problem is, well, Google. Though Google founded the WebM project, it continues to use Flash on YouTube, and though it has said it will remove H.264 from Chrome, it has yet to do so. Just this afternoon, when asked, a Google spokesman reiterated that the company will eventually remove the royalty-encumbered codec. "There has been no change in strategy," he told us. And the company has said much the same thing to Wium Lie.

Google is also playing both sides of the issue. It has said that in the foreseeable future, WebM is not an option on YouTube. HTML video, the company said, is limited when it comes to DRM, full-screen video, and camera and microphone access.

Today, Google introduced video rentals through the Android Market, and since these use DRM, we're assuming it doesn't use WebM either. But the company has yet to respond to our questions about the new service.

Wium Lie seems confident that Google will do what it takes to drive WebM forward. But he takes a very different view of another Google effort to revamp the web platform. Opera is on record as saying it does not support Google's Native Client project, a plug-in for securely running native code inside the browser, and Wium Lie maintains this stance, despite the advent of Portable Native Client, which will allow the platform to operate independently of a machine's processor.

Native Client aims to achieve speeds above and beyond JavaScript, but Wium Lie questions whether Portable Native Client will provide the same speeds as native code, and he believes that JavaScript and other web standards are more than capable of keeping pace.

He guesses that Google is building native client in order to attract game developers to the web – it would allow them to easily port their existing native-code rendering engines – but for games, he backs WebGL, which debuted in Opera's desktop browser earlier this year.

Wium Lie says that one day the world will use only applications built with standard web technologies, that we'll look back on 2011 as a quaint time when people still used native apps. But then he stops himself, admitting this may be more of a hope than a belief. ®

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