Does Anyone Really Care About Web Video Codecs?

“The great thing about standards,” as a wise person once said, “is that there are so many of them.” One of the major pieces of news at today’s Google I|O conference was the company’s introduction of a new standard for Web video. It’s called WebM, and it’s based upon the VP8 video codec created by On2, a company Google acquired last August. WebM is open-source and free of royalties–which means that anyone who builds any product relating to video is free to use it without seeking permission or paying anyone for the privilege.

Two of Google’s browser-making competitors, Mozilla and Opera, took the stage at the conference to throw their support behind WebM. Until now, they’d been championing Ogg Theora–another open codec with some of the same ancestral roots as VP8–and opposing H.264, the codec favored by Apple and Microsoft. (H.264 is open, and carries no royalty requirements at the moment–but that’s supposed to end in 2015.)

Microsoft isn’t among the 40+ companies who Google lined up for the WebM announcement at I|O, but says IE will support Google’s technology on Windows PCs that have the codec installed. Apple, meanwhile, hasn’t been heard from. Given that it’s standardized all its products on H.264 for many years, it would be a shocker if today’s news prompted it to change its plans.

The best thing anyone could say about Theora, as far as I can tell, is that it was open and free. The best thing you can say about VP8/WebM is that it’s a really high-quality, efficient codec. Now it’s open and free–and coupled with HTML5's video playback support, it’ll let browsers on computers and mobile devices do high-quality video without the need for plug-ins, proprietary technologies, or payments. So Google’s move is welcome.

Except…

We’re still left with the prospect of a future in which some applications and devices support only H.264 and some support only WebM. Unless every purveyor of online video encodes every video in both formats, you might not be able to make any assumptions about whether a video you want to watch will play on all the gadgets you own. That doesn’t strike me as a radically better scenario than the current state of affairs–in which you can probably watch videos if you’ve got Flash, and might not be able to if you don’t.

Ogg Theora was weak enough that I wondered if Mozilla and Opera would be forced to grit their teeth and surrender to the inevitability of H.264. As a stronger contender, WebM could actually push a solution to the codec mess out further into the future.

Of course, very few of the people who use browsers care about competing standards with varying degrees of openness and varying technical benefits. They just want to be confident that their video will play. Which is why I’d like to see one codec come to dominate the Web sooner rather than later–and I don’t much care which one it is.

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