What Google's WebM Looks Like to Video Digerati

It's been a week since Google (Nasdaq: GOOG  ) announced a new open-source video project called WebM at its I/O Developers Conference in San Francisco, with the online media giant arguing that streaming video -- like nearly everything else on the Internet -- just wants to be free. So it seemed like a good time to see how some digital video technology companies are reacting to the move.

In announcing its WebM project, Google (which owns YouTube) said it was joining forces with roughly 40 other companies, including Japan's Sony, Intel (Nasdaq: INTC  ) , Adobe (Nasdaq: ADBE  ) , and Logitech (Nasdaq: LOGI  ) to promote the use of WebM under a permissive free software license. Conspicuously missing from the list were Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT  ) and Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL  ) . In its statement, the Mountain View, CA, company said, "With Google TV, consumers will now be able to search and watch an expanded universe of content available from a variety of sources including TV providers, the web, their personal content libraries, and mobile applications."

The WebM technology includes the VP8 video codec, which Google acquired as part of its $140 million buyout of On2 Technologies earlier this year, and Ogg Vorbis, an open source audio codec that's already widely implemented. A wrinkle that drew much media attention, however, is that Google's plans to freely license WebM technology could run afoul of MPEG LA -- the licensing body for the rival H.264 video codec.

So what was the reaction among digital video leaders from coast to coast?

At Qualcomm (Nasdaq: QCOM  ) , the vice president of product management in CDMA Technologies, Rag Talluri, writes in a blog post that the San Diego wireless giant is "a strong supporter" of WebM and openly available standards. "This is why we are excited that the company behind the biggest online video portal is enabling the VP8 initiative," Talluri says. "We thus continue to collaborate with On2/Google's engineering teams to support VP8 codec on our mobile platforms and deliver a rich video experience on Qualcomm-powered mobile devices. "

In Cambridge, MA, Brightcove marketing vice president Jeff Whatcott blogs, "most Flash video experiences, including those delivered by Brightcove on behalf of our customers, utilize the H.264 format. H.264 also dominates today's HTML5 and mobile app video experiences, primarily because it is the only option on the hot iPhone and iPad devices... The only problem with H.264 is that there have been concerns about potentially large royalty pay associated with its online use. These royalty concerns have been pushed out to at least 2016. However, the possibility of substantial royalty liabilities continues to hang like a cloud over the H.264 standard and prevents browsers like Mozilla and Opera from adopting it.

"Until WebM, there was no alternative to H.264 that was free and of sufficient quality to become pervasive across Flash, HTML5, and mobile app video experiences. Ogg Theora is free, but suffers from quality and efficiency concerns that make it a weak contender... And now that the technology is open sourced under a royalty free Mozilla license, WebM has become 'both free and good' format that has been missing from the market."

Sorenson Media CEO Peter Csathy was quick to emphasize that Sorenson's online video platform was already supporting WebM and the VP8 technical standards. The Carlsbad, CA- and Salt Lake City-based start-up got some advance notice about WebM, but Csathy says his team still "worked literally days, nights, weekends -- whatever it took -- to make this happen." Csathy also made a point of noting that other video hosting providers, including, specifically, Cambridge, MA-based Brightcove, are merely planning to support VP8 "at some point in the future."

In a subsequent post, Csathy raises the patent infringement issue with the H.264 video standard and concludes, "MPEG LA is setting the stage to seek its pound of flesh from those unwitting souls who plan to use VP8. At a minimum, the organization is sowing the seeds of uncertainty and doubt in order to keep H.264 in its place as the high quality video heavyweight. And, who is a member of MPEG LA? Well, there are many -- but, perhaps most interesting in this case, are our good friends at Apple. That's right, Apple."

In one of the better blog posts I found, VMIX Senior Director of Engineering Lei Pan writes, "Whether WebM is truly patent-free, as stated by Google, remains to be seen, but having a video format with the potential to be as widely adopted and supported as H.264 is ground-breaking." Pan notes that San Diego's VMIX, along with YouTube and Facebook, uses the reference implementations of the rival H.264 specification for its video transcoding, but plans to take VP8 for a spin. "The showdown," he writes, is between the reference implementations for VP8 and H.264, and "our initial findings are not terribly encouraging for VP8. Performance is a concern. I will put together a detailed performance and quality comparison between the two and hopefully share that in my next post.

"To conclude, I think WebM is pretty cool, and as VP8 matures, it'll certainly cut into the dominance of H.264. That said, I don't believe it's ready right now. Still, we're certainly working to make it available on our platform for those clients who'd like to take it for a spin."

Marco Thompson, executive vice president of San Diego's Solekai Systems, tells me Google's WebM announcement is good news for the privately held customized software developer, where about 70 percent of its work involves digital video. "Solekai is a services business," Thompson says. "The way it affects us is that it moves new technology into the market at a lower price and that means better, faster, cheaper consumer electronics with more features." Our phone conversation was interrupted, and in an email, Thompson adds, "If you look back into history, people did not buy MPEG 1 or MPEG 2, they bought DirecTV satellite systems. People did not buy MPEG 2 Layer 3 (MP3), they bought iPods!!! There is a long way from technology to products, and we bridge that gap."

At SciVee, a San Diego-based "YouTube for science," CEO Marc Friedmann says, "We are quite aware of WebM, as well as some other programs that Adobe is working on to enable HTML5 support beginning from a Flash base. The scientific journal market is starting to ask about mobile support, but they tend not to be early adopters. We have not made a technology choice at this point, but expect to do so later this year."

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Bruce V. Bigelow is the editor of Xconomy San Diego. You can email him at bbigelow@xconomy.com or call 858-202-0492

The Fool owns shares of Intel, which is also a Motley Fool Inside Value pick. Motley Fool Options has recommended buying calls and creating a covered strangle position on Intel, a "diagonal call" position on Microsoft, and a "write covered calls" position on Logitech. Google is a Motley Fool Rule Breakers pick. Adobe and Apple are Motley Fool Stock Advisor selections. Logitech is a Motley Fool Hidden Gems pick. Microsoft is a Motley Fool Inside Value pick. The Fool has a disclosure policy.


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