Google Buys On2

Google today announced they are buying On2 Technologies. This is one of their more significant purchases despite the relatively low price tag of $106.5 million since it’s video technology and Google is the largest video source on the web right now.

On2 is really an unknown to most people but their product has an amazing reach thanks to Adobe Flash. VP6 notably was included in Flash 8 and really brought about the age of Flash video (think YouTube). On2 also has VP7 which is considered a H.264 competitor. VP3 was released as open source and lives on as OGG Theora.

Of course by buying On2 Google will not need to pay any licensing for it’s VP7 technology, they can then bundle it into Chrome, Android and Google Chrome OS (finally giving Linux decent web video support). They could also open source it similar to these platforms in hopes that it will gain ubiquity.

This does however leave me wondering if this pending On2 deal had any bearing on the decision to leave HTML 5 <video/> codec ambiguous. It’s noteworthy since Google is very involved in the HTML 5 efforts. As I mentioned last month licensing is really key. If VP7 were open sourced and it’s licensing were compatible to meet Apple and Mozilla’s needs (which could lead to inclusion in Safari and Firefox respectively), OGG Theora is potentially dead overnight. Given Google’s strategy so far of making technology open source in efforts to encourage adoption, I wouldn’t rule this out, though it would likely take a while to evaluate everything and make sure they legally have that option. Timeline could also come into play here. The web isn’t necessarily going to wait for Google. These reviews can potentially take a long time. No guarantee others will incorporate it either, though it’s a pretty good deal should licensing work.

It’s also interesting that now Microsoft has Windows Media Player, Apple has QuickTime, and Google has On2’s codec bundle. It’s not exactly a “player”, but considering it’s usage it’s just as important.

It’s going to be very interesting to see how this plays out. One thing that seems relatively certain is that Google just made web video more interesting.

Debating Ogg Theora and H.264

Since the big HTML 5 news that there will be no defined codec for <audio/> or <video/> there has been a lot of discussion about the merits of such a decision, and what led to it. To quote Ian Hickson’s email:

Apple refuses to implement Ogg Theora in Quicktime by default (as used by Safari), citing lack of hardware support and an uncertain patent landscape.

Google has implemented H.264 and Ogg Theora in Chrome, but cannot provide the H.264 codec license to third-party distributors of Chromium, and have indicated a belief that Ogg Theora’s quality-per-bit is not yet suitable for the volume handled by YouTube.

Opera refuses to implement H.264, citing the obscene cost of the relevant patent licenses.

Mozilla refuses to implement H.264, as they would not be able to obtain a license that covers their downstream distributors.

Microsoft has not commented on their intent to support

I think everyone agrees this is going nowhere and isn’t likely to change in the near future. For the sake of moving HTML5 forward, this is likely the best decision.

Here’s how I interpret everyone’s position:

Apple’s Argument

One of the undeniable perks behind H.264 right now is that there is hardware decoding available and used on on certain devices. One of the most notable is the iPhone. Using hardware decoding means your not using the CPU which results in better performance, and most importantly better battery life.

Thus far there’s no hardware Theora decoder on the market (if you know of any let me know, my research says none), which I suspect is why Apple is hesitant to jump on board. Until there’s hardware that’s proven to perform well, be cost-effective in the quantities Apple needs, and not be bombarded with patent infringement claims, I suspect they’d rather settle with H.264. The patent part is critical. Apple can update software to comply with patent wars pretty quickly, as many other companies have done with software in the past. Hardware is not so easy. Last minute hardware changes are harder to deal with than software because of the many things it impacts, and the inability to update at a later date.

I’m almost positive the lack of hardware support is the exact same reason Apple has been so against Flash support. Remember the YouTube application isn’t using VP6 like regular flash, it’s using H.264 (that’s why it took so long for all of YouTube to be available on the iPhone).

If there’s enough Theora content out there, there will likely be Theora decoder hardware made to meet market demand. To get to this point will be difficult with the amount of VP6 (Flash) and H.264 content already on the web. H.264 alone has a major head start in applications. VP6 has several years of video on the web now (and I still don’t think it has a hardware decoder on the market though that might be due to licensing again).

In the long run, I think mobile technology will improve enough to make this a somewhat unnecessary constraint. Mobile CPU’s and GPU’s are just starting to get to the caliber needed for video. Performance per watt should improve. Battery technology is just starting to get pushed to the limits. This is a good thing for Theora in the long run, but the question is how long?

Until it can be played with minimal impact on battery life, I don’t think any company who has a heavy investment in mobile will want to jump on board.

Google’s Argument

Google has money and can license H.264. Shocker. Google however has trouble when it comes to Chromium. I suspect Google doesn’t care too much about which way this goes since what they support in Chrome doesn’t mandate that YouTube support it. However if the encoding quality for a given bitrate is good enough, it becomes a viable option.

Regarding the quality argument, I’ll simply point to this comparison. I the quality today is comparable already, and likely to get better as the encoders improve. I’ll leave this discussion here.

Opera’s Argument

Opera says H.264 is to expensive to license. I don’t know what the costs are, and what they would be for Opera, but I’ll take their word on it. After all, the do have a product available for free download. While commercial and closed source, they don’t have Google’s revenue stream and I respect that.

Mozilla’s Argument

Mozilla can’t license for downstream Gecko use etc. I’m sure a good part of the argument is also that requiring licensing fees to use <video/> is bad for the web and open source. I agree.

Microsoft’s Argument

No comment. Historically they implemented <marquee/> but not the <blink/>. Make of that what you will.

<video/> could be supported by plugin if needed. I recall Adobe supporting SVG by plugin a few years ago.

Where to go from here?

I think there are a few possible outcomes. As for what I think are the most likely:

  1. There’s a push for hardware decoding that makes Theora on mobile technically possible and working well. If Apple legally is satisfied and jumps on board that changes the game. As I stated earlier I think Google is mostly ambivalent since they support both right now. Opera doesn’t want H.264 anyway, so they are cool. IE 8 can likely be handled by a plugin. Apple really is the deciding factor. Theora is the future.
  2. See what the web does. I suspect at least for a long while the web will just stick with Flash since it works on almost all desktops. For mobile the iPhone and Android make up pretty much the bulk of the mobile video market and that doesn’t look like it’s changing so fast. Content providers that want mobile will encode for mobile. That means 3 target platforms, not ideal but reasonable. H.264 and whatever Adobe adopts is the future.

I know how the media is interpreting all of this. How do other developers, and open source folks see it?

Theora Improvements

I mentioned back in January that there was a push to improve open video, something I think is very important for the future of the web. Chris Blizzard pointed to a recent Theora update which includes screenshots of the progress that has been made. It’s very impressive to actually see. Even more impressive is the mention that it’s using the “same encoder parameters, equal bitrates”. This isn’t just turning up the bitrate in an attempt to improve quality.

Since these improvements are in the encoder rather than the format, or the playback library that means existing Theora users, as well as all Firefox 3.5 users will be benefiting from the work already done, as well as work done in the future without needed continued software updates, though I bet even playback will get some improvements over time.

Even better is that open video is free unlike most other formats out there.

Open Video

Just the other day I was complaining that Ogg Theora/Vorbis hasn’t really proven itself and achieved market penetration to the point where people will still care about it in several years. My concern with less popular file formats is that data is lost forever if future computing can’t view it. Popularity, while it may not be fair does help encourage it. For example I can still open up old WordPerfect files easier than I can Professional Write files (trip down memory lane anyone?)

I’m thrilled to see a push for open video. Better encoders and decoders along with working with the Wikimedia Foundation (Wikipedia’s use of Theora can be very influential) will hopefully provide a boost for these formats which tends to be a cyclical trend once it gains momentum.