Google I/O 2010
Part 3: VP8: An Open Video Codec
Next up was the first truly big announcement at the show: Following its $125 million purchase of On2 Technologies earlier this year, Google will open source On2's VP8 video codec and make it freely available as an alternative to H.264 for HTML 5-based video. In case that reads like a bunch of gobbledygook, it just means this: With VP8 support, browsers will be able to display high quality web video without any need for a third party browser plug-in like Flash or QuickTime, and without the need for expensive and messy pseudo-format like H.264. Browser plug-ins aren't just hard to manage--they're updated separately from the browser and other system components--but they're also a security nightmare. So free, native in-browser support for video is a huge advance.
"We think video should have a great free and open alternative," Pichai said. "We are very, very committed to this. He stepped through why Google believes VP8 is superior, but this contention has been hotly debated elsewhere, not to mention the fact that H.264's owners will likely sue Google now for intellectual property rights violations. That said, Google is made of money, and if there's a company that can ward off this legal threat, it's Google. In any event, a new Google project called WebM will incorporate VP8 as its video codec, and the open source Vorbis codec for audio.
VP8 has received near-universal support from the top-tier browser makers as well. Representatives from H.264 hold-out Mozilla and also from Opera were on hand to announce their support for VP8, and Microsoft separately said that it would support VP8 as an alternative to H.264 in IE 9. (Microsoft will not bundle the VP8 codec with IE 9, however, and will instead require users to download and install this codec separately. This has generated some false indignation from the digerati, but I'd remind people of VP8's very real IP issues. Microsoft doesn't want to be sued because it distributed an illegal copy of H.264 in IE9. If Google chooses to indemnify licensees, or wins a court battle against H.264's owners, I suspect that will change.)
Adobe also announced that it would add VP8 codec support to its dominant Flash player software and distribute this technology to over 1 billion people within the first year of its release. Adobe is also working to push Flash onto (non-Apple) devices; more on this in a bit.
Notably absent from the VP8 announcement, of course, is Apple. As a major H.264 licensor and backer, Apple sees no point in supporting a true standard for which it receives no royalties. This is hardly surprising, but if VP8 does take off, it could form a chink in the armor of Apple's currently-ubiquitous iProducts.
Uncertainties aside, VP8 is a big deal. It provides a surprise alternative to H.264, which was previously considered an unassailable force, largely because of Apple's backing. But with the rest of the web community effectively rallying around VP8, H.264's future is now suddenly in doubt. This says a lot about Google's market power compared to Apple's, I think.