On the opening day of its Google I/O conference, Google proposed to replace the proprietary H.264 video codec on the web with a free, open-source alternative called VP8. Interestingly, VP8 garnered immediate support from all the major browser players, including Microsoft, Mozilla, and Opera. But Apple, which not only backs H.264 but has a stake in its success, was notably silent.
VP8 is part of the WebM project, which is open source and royalty free, according to Google. Google purchased VP8 maker On2 Technologies in January for $134 million, fueling speculation that it intended to open up the VP8 video format for use on the web.
The issue here is HTML 5, which includes integrated support for video playback, allowing browsers to play video without requiring a plug-in. HTML 5 currently supports two video formats, the proprietary and expensive (but high quality) H.264 format backed by Apple and others, and the lower quality Ogg Theora, which is backed by Mozilla but little used. Mozilla is the only major browser maker not to back H.264, and it claims licensing issues as the reason.
H.264 is owned by a vast consortium of companies with competing needs, but licensing is handled by a single entity called MPEG-LA. According to MPEG-LA, H.264 will be freely licensed for use on the web, but only through 2016. At that point, it could change the licensing terms.
Google's goal with VP8 is to end the confusion and help speed support for HTML 5 by making this a third supported video codec, one that is both high quality and freely licensed forever. And its efforts seem to have worked with everyone but Apple.
Within minutes of the Google announcement, Microsoft said that it too would support VP8 in its upcoming Internet Explorer 9 web browser, alongside the previously announced H.264 support. "IE9 will support playback of H.264 video as well as VP8 video when the user has installed a VP8 codec on Windows," Microsoft General Manager Dean Hachamovitch wrote in the IEBlog. "When it comes to video and HTML5, we're all in."
Parsing this statement, you can see that IE9 will not include this support natively but that users will need to separately install the codec in Windows. Hachamovitch says that this is because of potential legal liabilities around the VP8 format; if the owners of H.264 or other video codecs choose to sue Google for violating their intellectual property, Microsoft would be held liable for distributing the technology as well.
Your move, Apple.