Is Google's WebM a game-changer or a big mess?

WebM could be the video standard we've all been looking for, bridging the open Web with Flash. Or not.
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor

Announced at Google i/O today, WebM is a newly open-sourced multimedia format, consisting primarily of the video format formerly known as VP8. The goal is to provide an open, easy video experience that works across modern browsers and integrates with HTML 5, the new standard being pushed by Google and now being supported by Adobe, both in words and in action with an HTML5 update to DreamWeaver CS5. The question, though, as rivals Apple and Microsoft push the competing h.264 format, is "Why WebM?"

According to the WebM Project Blog,

A key factor in the web’s success is that its core technologies such as HTML, HTTP, TCP/IP, etc. are open and freely implementable. Though video is also now core to the web experience, there is unfortunately no open and free video format that is on par with the leading commercial choices. To that end, we are excited to introduce WebM, a broadly-backed community effort to develop a world-class media format for the open web.

In addition to VP8, WebM includes Vorbis, "an already open source and broadly implemented audio codec" and a "container format based on a subset of the Matroska media container." Interestingly, Adobe announced today that it would be adding support for WebM to Flash, meaning that anyone with a Flash plug-in installed could view WebM content; most modern browsers should be able to support WebM natively, given that Google ultimately wants to dispense with the need for plugins and just have multimedia work via HTML5 and WebM.

The WebM and open Video pieces of the I/O Keynote is embedded here. It's worth watching all 10 minutes of the clip, despite a few bad jokes from the Mozilla guy as they create a really compelling case for widespread adoption of the WebM platform.

A continuation of the Keynote with Adobe's announcements surrounding HTML5 and WebM is available here.

Next: So where's the mess?

It may not be quite as rosy a picture as the folks at Google I/O are painting this week, though. As AppleInsider quotes video developer Jason Garrett-Glaser saying,

"I may have complained about the H.264 spec being overly verbose, but at least it’s precise. The VP8 spec, by comparison, is imprecise, unclear, and overly short, leaving many portions of the format very vaguely explained. Some parts even explicitly refuse to fully explain a particular feature, pointing to highly-optimized, nigh-impossible-to-understand reference code for an explanation. There’s no way in hell anyone could write a decoder solely with this spec alone."

Google did, in fact, purchase On2 Technologies, the company behind the VP8 video format, not so long ago. Garrett-Glaser also complained to AppleInsider about the potential patent infringements of VP8 on h.264, opening a host of other problems for the standard. Google is unwilling to indemnify users and adopters of the WebM technologies from patent liabilities; while this sort of protection would be quite unusual, gunshy developers might think twice about stepping in anything legally sticky.

That being said, support on the 3 major non-Internet Explorer browser platforms; support from AMD, NVIDIA, ARM, and others; and support from a competing company (Adobe) which can leverage it's Flash platform and development tools makes WebM look like the platform to beat rather than the underdog. Watch the videos and talkback with your thoughts.

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