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Flash, H.264, and WebM

I know, another post on WebM – it is just that significant. As more rumblings are heard of, and more beta versions of Firefox 4 are released – the WebM question continues to resurface. Mozilla seems fully intent on including full WebM support in this release, and Opera 10.60+ / Chrome 6+ also support the codec for playback. As mentioned earlier you can also view some WebM videos via YouTube, and even encode some of your own.

All of this is fun and interesting stuff – but the question must be asked, how different will all of this be from the existing way in which video is delivered over the web? I realized that I neglected to mention, though depending on who is reading this might be self-evident, that WebM in its HTML5 manifestation runs without needing a plugin (a la Flash). Now, H.264 video will also play in its own HTML5 manifestation in Safari, Chrome, and the forthcoming IE 9. The difference (at the moment) between these two (or three if you also want to take Ogg’s open-source Theora, which plays in Chrome, Opera, and Firefox into account) is that H.264 is a patented, proprietary codec, managed by the licensing body MPEG LA; while WebM is still open-source, and encoding options are growing.

What may very well be brewing here is a kind of showdown between the two codecs for the final title of HTML5’s video standard. As was already outlined in a post by John Paczkowski at Digital Daily back in May, and the author of the x264 Developer Blog the day after the Web release – ‘With regard to patents, VP8 copies too much from H.264 for comfort, no matter whose word is behind the claim of being patent-free. This doesn’t mean that it’s sure to be covered by patents, but until Google can give us evidence as to why it isn’t, I would be cautious.’ So, there has been some talk of MPEG LA seeking to develop a patent pool that might allow them some legal recourse against both WebM and Ogg’s Theora. So, the future remains uncertain with regard to the developers and users seeking a truly open-source, royalty-free codec/container that would begin to eliminate many of the plugin/codec related issues that arise when streaming video on the web. Next, I hope to give a look at some actual numbers related to CPU usage while playing back videos in a couple of different containers.

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