May 022010
 

Google + FlashIn the current debate about HTML5 vs. Flash as well as H.264 vs. Theora, understanding Google’s intentions behind the purchase of On2 could provide som interesting clues.  Are they planning to finally set HTML5 video free by getting their VP8 decoder into browsers? Or do they plan for another delivery method?

Obviously they want to get involved with video codecs as the owners of Youtube. The efficiency of a codec matters a lot for their bandwidth costs, and currently the only sensible alternative for them is H.264.
It’s supported in the Flash Player, which still is a requirement to reach most users, and it’s more efficient than Theora.
But H.264 is owned by MPEG-LA with both Microsoft and Apple as licensors. They can take license fees as they see fit on a case-by-case basis, and of course Google would rather not be under their mercy. Having a decent share of the browser market, MS and Apple can force Google to use the codec they accept in the browser.

Looking at the current situation Google cannot fully adopt HTML5 with H.264 since that would mean a lot of users not being able to view the videos, and Firefox has no plans of adding support. And using Theora to serve video to Firefox would just give them the worst of both options. Then they do not only have to pay licensing fees for H.264, but they at the same time make themselves vulnerable to lawsuits due to the unclear patent-situation with Theora.

So why they bought On2 seems to be fairly clear, but now when they have the codec they have a few different approaches of how to get it to the users. There is no point for them to re-encode their entire library to VP8 unless a very high percentage of users can play the content.

I can think of the following options:

1. Make VP8 a standard for HTML5 video across browsers

Many are hoping that Google will open VP8, and assume that it would end the conflict of what codec should be used to render the <video> tag. Is that likely to happen, and if so when?

First of all MS and Apple has a vested interest in H.264, so from a short term financial perspective it makes sense for them to try to push H.264 and stall alternatives. Even if MS and Apple would let in a codec competing with H.264 in their browsers, it would be a long time before HTML5 with VP8 makes it into more than 90% of users browsers. I doubt VP8 would make it in to IE9, and how many years before users with IE 9 and earlier only make up a few percent? I would not bet on that happening this decade.

The lifespan of an IE release actually seems to be longer than the lifespan of a codec, and unless that changes it becomes difficult to rely on browsers to deliver the codec. If they rely only on this approach VP8 could very well be outdated by the time it’s accessible enough to make sense as the primary delivery method.

With Jobs latest Flash-bashing and Microsoft stating their support for HTML5 and H.264, it’s pretty clear that Apple and MS are not that keen on offering alternatives to H.264 in their browsers.
There are several reasons for that. The most obvious one is that they both collect licensing fees for H.264, and by not supporting other codes they can ensure that it’s a requirement to provide an H.264 version.
Then there is the issue with submarine patents, which would be the official reason for not supporting Theora. VP8 might not avoid the patent issues completely, but at least Google’s backing should inspire a bit more confidence in the codec, but I very much doubt MS and Apple will be in a rush to support VP8 regardless.

2. Get the codec in to the Flash Player

Adobe would probably not need a lot of convincing to add VP8 support, and as soon as the decoder is implemented in the player, Google could request from users that they upgrade their Flash Player to view the content.
The Flash Player already has an astonishing adoption rate,  and Youtube making use of a new player version would make most their users upgrade immediately.
Using Flash would bypass the control MS and Apple have over what codec should be used, and enable Google to very quickly add support for the codec on the users PC or various devices.

This is without a doubt a much more viable strategy for Google if they are at all hoping to switch default codec to VP8.

3. Deliver through their own platform

Maybe as a long term strategy Google rather have control themselves over the platform. Chrome and Android certainly suggests that. But I don’t think they hope to get to a position where their own platform would serve as the main means of delivery within the lifespan of VP8. Of course they can dream of a position similar to Flash with a platform that can reach over 95% of users, but it would be a bit early to invest in a codec for when that dream comes true.  So if they have any plans for VP8 it has to do with current platforms, but they might want to get the IP and people from On2 to protect themselves and work on a future codec.

And as I understand it, as partners in the OpenScreenProject they have access to the source for the Flash Player and could write their own player. I doubt they will bother with that since Adobe certainly be very keen to do the work themselves in this case, but having that possibility it’s not as if they give Adobe the control instead of MS and Apple.

If Adobe would be very closed about their technology and be involved in licensing codecs, I guess Google would feel more of an urgency to get their own means of delivery, but right now Adobe is an ideal partner since they can enable Google to get their codec established almost instantly without paying for any licenses.

Summary

So I think Google will open VP8, but I don’t think that will resolve the issue of getting the codec into browsers, and getting the browsers to the users.

They are in one way or the other going to pursue all three options at the same time, but the chances of VP8 solving the issues with HTML5 video in the near future is almost non-existent.
And Flash will remain their main means of delivering video, especially if they want a way to establish VP8 quickly. Standards that take decades to become established, along with browsers where old versions live on for decades, are obviously not cut out for handling delivery of technology which needs to be up-to-date.

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