Tag Archives: Theora

Google and 16 Other Companies Come Together to Form the WebM Community Cross-License Initiative

WebMI have always advocated the use of royalty free codecs (first Ogg-Theora and then WebM) for the HTML5 <video> tag. The WebM movement has been slowly but surely gaining momentum since its inception. We have already seen almost all the the major desktop browser vendors (Google, Opera Software, Mozilla and Microsoft*) adopt Google’s open source and royalty free media format. Desktop media players like Winamp are beginning to embrace WebM. And, perhaps most crucially, chip makers like Intel are working to add WebM support at the hardware level.

One of the biggest challenges for WebM is the intellectual properties issue. It’s no secret that the patent system is seriously messed up. Some of the patents granted to the members of MPEG LA, the consortium that owns the patent pool for H.264, are so broad and ambiguous that it’s almost impossible to develop a media codec without violating them. Nevertheless, Google has maintained that WebM doesn’t infringe any existing patents, and is a clean and reliable royalty free alternative to H.264. A couple of months back, MPEG LA, the entity that stands to loose the most from the success of WebM, called upon its members to submit patents essential to the VP8 video codec specification, presumably in preparation of a patent infringement lawsuit..

With the threat of legal action looming, all the companies involved and interested in the growth of WebM have formed a cross-license initiative. It’s essentially a consortium that will freely share all patents related to WebM on a royalty free basis. Google was already working closely with Xiph (maintainers of the Ogg audio format) and Matroska (maintainers of the Matroska video container). Additionally, CCL includes the likes of AMD, LG, Mozilla, Opera Software, Samsung, and Texas instruments. The hope is that with the backing of these corporations, WebM will be able to tackle any legal challenge that it might have to face in the future.

*Internet Explorer 9 can play WebM videos provided that the required codecs have already been installed.

Google Gets Aggressive About WebM, Decides to Drop H.264 Support from Chrome

WebM Google has announced that it will be dropping support for H.264 in future versions of Chrome, and instead focus on high quality open codecs. Although Google’s announcement is surprising, it’s not completely unexpected. Last year, Google spent a fair amount of cash to acquire On2, the startup behind VP8. Later, Google unveiled its own open source codec called WebM, based on On2’s VP8. Now that WebM has begun to witness increasing amounts of hardware support, as well as improvement in performance, Google obviously feels that the time is right to put its foot down.

The core issue with H.264 has been that it is proprietary. Last year, MPEG-LA made H.264 royalty free forever for free web broadcasts, in an attempt to counter WebM. However, even that move was deemed insufficient since it didn’t include applications that encode and decode video, as well as commercial broadcasts. It also didn’t alleviate the threat that some other patent holding body might come calling.

Chrome will now join Opera and Firefox as browsers supporting only open video codecs, i.e. Theora and WebM. Microsoft had earlier announced that it will be supporting both H.264 and WebM in Internet Explorer 9, provided that the codec for the latter is installed on the system. Apple, which has been pushing for HTML5 <video> as an alternative to Flash, has been a steadfast supporter of H.264. It will probably continue to do so for the foreseeable future as hardware decoding support (which is crucial for portable devices like the iPod and the iPhone) for WebM is still fairly limited.

Although Google’s decision to drop H.264 support from Chrome represents a major setback for H.264, don’t expect it to disappear immediately. Apple’s dominance over the mobile devices segment, and the lack of WebM support in tablets and phones is something Google will have to contend with.

WebM: Why We Should Be Excited

WebM-Open-Video-Codec Google has just unveiled WebM – an open source royalty free codec based on VP8 by On2. If everything goes according to (Google’s) plans, WebM would become the de-facto standard for HTML5 videos. In the past, I have emphasized on numerous occasions the need for an open codec – both on TechieBuzz and on my personal blog.

Until now, two codecs were being considered for use with the <video> tag – H.264 and Theora. Unfortunately, there are considerable problems with both. While Ogg Theora is royalty free and open source, it is a technically inferior codec. Not only are the file sizes generated by Ogg Theora larger, but it also lacks hardware acceleration support. The latter is critical for mobile devices like the iPad and the the iPhone. H.264 is a superior codec, but it is proprietary. If it becomes the prevalent codec, we would be held hostage to MPEG-LA’s goodwill.

If you believe that this doesn’t affect you, then think again. MPEG-LA is legally entitled to collect royalty from both content distributors as well as (commercial) content providers. Yes, they have decided to waiver this fee til 2015. However, there is nothing stopping them from changing their minds after the initial grace period is over.

WebM offers a way out. It is a media project encompassing both audio and video. While the video codec is based on VP8 codec by On2 (Theora is based on VP3), Vorbis will be used for delivering audio. The container format is based on a subset of the Matroska media container.

WebM will be initially supported by Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox and Opera. While Chrome had earlier chosen to support both H.264 and Theora, the latter two had opted against using the patent encumbered H.264. Now the big question is, will Apple and Microsoft back WebM?

My guess is that Microsoft will make Internet Explorer WebM compliant in time. The biggest thorn in Google’s way may be Apple. Apple has been pushing hard in favor of H.264. In fact, recently Steve Jobs had issued a thinly veiled threat against Theora. His exact words being, “A patent pool is being assembled to go after Theora and other open sourcecodecs now”.

The biggest advantage WebM has is Google and its might. While, MPEG-LA would like to go after any open codec it considers a threat, Google is a formidable target. WebM will also be getting a huge initial impetus in form of YouTube compatibility. Numerous major players have already pledged to support WebM. Besides the aforementioned browser vendors, hardware manufacturers like AMD, ARM, Broadcom, Freescale, NVIDIA, Qualcomm, and Texas Instruments will be backing the new technology. Adobe will also be supporting WebM through Flash.

If you want to get a taste of WebM go ahead and download the experimental builds of Mozilla Firefox or Opera. Google Chrome builds with WebM should be released on May 24.

[ Download Opera and Mozilla Firefox with WebM ]

Whats Up With Canonical Licensing H.264?

Recently there was a lot of speculation on why Ubuntu went out of its way to license H.264 and discarded Theora in the process. This made Canonical the only company dealing in Linux to license H.264. It was highly expected of Ubuntu to license Theora though this licensing of H.264 comes as another blow to the already losing out Theora codec.

There were further talks on this matter and Canonical’s Chris Kenyon talked to the H-Online saying,

The good news is that there are other ways of enjoying video content and we strongly believe in the work to establish open source codecs. We offer strong support for Ogg Vorbis in our standard images.

This means that Theora still rules regular distros while H.264 is used in OEMs only. He has strictly assured here that the matter is of importance only in case the device comes pre-installed with Ubuntu. Thus, it is valid only for OEM installs and not for other regular versions. Further, the vendor also has options to exclude the H.264 codec from its offering.

Canonical simplifies this by saying,

Like Adobe Flash, Adobe Acrobat, Fluendo, RealPlayer, DVD players and other proprietary software, we have a direct re-distribution agreement for H.264.

Xiph.Org Foundation Responds To Steve Jobs’ Threat: “Creative Individuals Don’t Really Like to Give Their Business to Jackbooted Thugs”

Monty Montgomery of Xiph.Org Foundation has responded to Steve Job’s threat. Xiph is the foundation responsible for taking care of Ogg, Theora and many other codecs. If you have missed the on-going codec wars, now would be a good time to catch up. Check out our previous article on Steve Job’s veiled threat to Theora before proceeding.

Here is Montgomery’s response:

Thomson Multimedia made their first veiled patent threats against Vorbis almost ten years ago. MPEG-LA has been rumbling for the past few years. Maybe this time it will actually come to something, but it hasn’t yet. I’ll get worried when the lawyers advise me to; i.e., not yet.

The MPEG-LA has insinuated for some time that it is impossible to build any video codec without infringing on at least some of their patents. That is, they assert they have a monopoly on all digital video compression technology, period, and it is illegal to even attempt to compete with them. Of course, they’ve been careful not to say quite exactly that.

If Jobs’s email is genuine, this is a powerful public gaffe (‘All video codecs are covered by patents.’) He’d be confirming MPEG’s assertion in plain language anyone can understand. It would only strengthen the pushback against software patents and add to Apple’s increasing PR mess. Macbooks and iPads may be pretty sweet, but creative individuals don’t really like to give their business to jackbooted thugs.

Montgomery’s comment is both straight to the point and piercing. He is right in highlighting the fallacy of software patents. Instead of encouraging competition and innovation, they promote bullying and stifle the little guy. It’s ironic that Apple is trying to portray itself as open and also going after an open source project like Theora at the same time.

Update: Xiph’s Greg Maxwell has also responded to this controversy by trying to clear up the FUD (Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt) that companies like Apple and Microsoft are trying to generate around open codecs like Theora. You can read his take over here.

Steve Jobs: A Patent Pool Is Being Assembled to Go After Theora

Apple Most of you have probably read Steve Jobs’ thoughts on Flash. It was undoubtedly an entertaining read. He was spot on about Flash being a closed platform, which has a poor security and stability track record. Yet, anyone with an analytical mind could not help but notice the hypocrisy inherent in the letter by Apple chief.

OSNews has already done a brilliant job at dissecting the letter and illustrating Jobs’ ‘holier than thou’ attitude, so I won’t be repeating the same points over here. Even Fake Diary of Steve Jobs succeeded in highlighting the shortcomings in Jobs’ reasoning – albeit in its own tongue in cheek way. Both of them are highly recommended reading.

Anyway, Steve Jobs’ open letter prompted Hugo Roy to write another open letter to Jobs’, to which Mr. Roy surprisingly enough received a reply. You can find both Hugo’s letter and Jobs’ reply over here. Here I am concerning myself only with Jobs’ reply.

From: Steve Jobs
To: Hugo Roy
Subject: Re:Open letter to Steve Jobs: Thoughts on Flash
Date 30/04/2010 15:21:17

All video codecs are covered by patents. A patent pool is being assembled to go after Theora and other open sourcecodecs now. Unfortunately, just because something is open source, it doesn’t mean or guarantee that it doesn’t infringe on others patents. An open standard is different from being royalty free or open source.

Sent from my iPad

(emphasis mine)

If I am not completely misreading things, Steve Jobs’ letter seems to strongly hint that Theora may soon face a patent infringement lawsuit. If you are wondering why Theora matters, check out my post on the recent codec squabble. In brief, browser vendors haven’t managed to agree on the codec to be used for the HTML5 <video> tag. The two major codecs being considered are H.264 and Ogg Theora. While Opera and Firefox are backing the open source Ogg Theora, Safari and Internet Explorer have pledged to go with the proprietary H.264 codec. Google Chrome supports both.

Theora is built on On2’s VP3, which was open sourced and handed over to the Xiph.Org Foundation. Most of the patents related to video codecs are owned by MPEG LA. So, in all likelihood it is playing an active role in gathering the afore mentioned patent pool. Interestingly enough, Apple is also a part of MPEG LA. MPEG LA is also the firm which stands to benefit if H.264 becomes the de-facto standard for web video. It’s not very hard to see the interrelation among the recent developments. I would leave it up to you to draw your own conclusions, but one thing is sure – the codec squabble will only get murkier.