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Google's WebM video standard - Help or hindrance?

Google has announced a new multimedia codec called WebM which the search giant is pitching to become the standard for web video. But is this new codec a help or a hindrance?

Google has announced a new multimedia codec called WebM which the search giant is pitching to become the standard for web video. But is this new codec a help or a hindrance?

The WebM codec combines the VP8 video codec with the Ogg Vorbis audio codec and the Matroska container format. The idea is to deliver high quality video that can adapt to varying bandwidths. Also, since it make efficient use of bandwidth, it will save content publishers cash.

Well, that's the idea.

The problem is that there are already two competing HTML5 codecs - Ogg theora and H.264. This means that Google is not only foisting a new codec on users, it's giving developers yet another choice.

It's also going to need support from web browsers. But that doesn't seem to be a problem. Both Firefox and Opera will support the format, as will Chrome I guess. And Microsoft has says that it will support WebM, but users will need to download and install the codec plugin. No word on support on mobile platforms yet.

Another issue here is patents. While WebM is open source, portions of the code could attract patent disputes. So far Google hasn't made any mention of this and there isn't, as yet, any offer on the table of indemnity for users.

Also, not everyone has gushing praise for the new codec. Jason Garrett-Glaser, the principal developer of the x264 codec, an open source codec compatible with H.264, has written a lot on VP8 already. Some of the points in his summary are worrying:

VP8, as a spec, should be a bit better than H.264 Baseline Profile and VC-1.  It’s not even close to competitive with H.264 Main or High Profile.

VP8, as an encoder, is somewhere between Xvid and Microsoft’s VC-1 in terms of visual quality.  This can definitely be improved a lot, but not via conventional means.

VP8, as a decoder, decodes even slower than ffmpeg’s H.264.  This probably can’t be improved that much.

With regard to patents, VP8 copies way too much from H.264 for anyone sane to be comfortable with it, no matter whose word is behind the claim of being patent-free.

With regard to patents, VP8 copies way too much from H.264 for anyone sane to be comfortable with it, no matter whose word is behind the claim of being patent-free.

My feeling about WebM is that if it hadn't had a big name behind it (and when it comes to the web, they don't get much bigger than Google), WebM would have attracted a yawn and we'd have all moved on.

Google can give WebM credibility, but when it comes to issues such as performance and patent infringement, even Google with all its might, cash and brainpower might not be able to wave a magic wand over these issues. Also, it introduces yet another format, which on the desktop isn't a problem, but for mobile users it could result in more fragmentation and frustration.