Google gains allies in the war over HTML5 video formats

The fight for dominant video/audio format -- reminiscent of the old Betamax/VHS conflict -- turns nasty as HTML5 gains traction

When I last talked about the Battle of the Video Format Titans -- the epic struggle between H.264 and WebM formats, particularly as they'll appear in conjunction with HTML5 -- I offered this scorecard:

  • Apple loves HTML5 and H.264, but hates Flash.
  • Microsoft loves HTML5 and H.264 -- even declaring H.264 the default codec in Internet Explorer 9 -- and tolerates Flash.
  • Apple and Microsoft belong to a patent pool known as MPEG-LA that licenses the code for H.264. Google would have to pay to support H.264.
  • Firefox loves HTML5, tolerates Flash, supports WebM, but can't afford to pay the royalties for H.264.
  • Google loves HTML5 and WebM, builds Flash into its browser, but hates H.264. Google owns YouTube, which has about 40 percent of all the videos on the Web.

Of course, it's all about money. Microsoft and Apple joined forces with a motley collection of patent holders to form the MPEG-LA consortium, a patent pool charged with licensing H.264 for the benefit of pool members. Florian Mueller has an excellent (if lengthy) recap of the licensing requirements on his blog.

Google's competing Betamax, er, WebM, has its open source roots in a video format called VP8 (from On2, which Google bought last year), and Vorbis audio (from, wrapped in a container based on Matroska. There's a swarm of conflicting claims and counterclaims, but suffice it to say that Google has formally released all of its patents on VP8; Xiph and Matroska have supported royalty-free WebM for more than a year; and Chrome, Firefox, and Opera all run WebM.

MPEG-LA claims that additional patents apply to WebM -- patents that don't belong to Google, Xiph, or Matroska. Of course, the MPEG-LA consortium has a vested financial interest in supplanting open source WebM. Let the FUD begin.

In January, Google infamously dropped H.264 support in Chrome, so in February, Microsoft kindly offered an H.264 extension for Chrome running on Windows 7. Last month, Microsoft released Internet Explorer 9 without WebM support, so Google kindly made a WebM extension for IE 9.

With me so far?

As of Monday, the plot has thickened yet again. Google announced the WebM Community Cross-License Initiative, a group of companies that have agreed to share any patents they may have that apply to WebM: "CCL members are joining this effort because they realize that the entire web ecosystem--users, developers, publishers, and device makers--benefits from a high-quality, community developed, open-source media format."

There are many heavyweights in CCL: Google, Matroska and Xiph, Mozilla and Opera, of course, but also AMD, Cisco, Huawei, LG, Logitech, MIPS, Pantech, Quanta, Samsung, ST-Ericsson, TI, and Verisilicon. Amazingly, Cisco, LG, and Samsung already have licenses for H.264 from MPEG-LA.

Two months ago MPEG-LA issued a public call for patents that may apply to WebM, with applications due last week. No word yet on whether the troll for patents netted anything, much less anything substantive. Stay tuned.

This story, "Google gains allies in the war over HTML5 video formats," was originally published at Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow on Twitter.

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