Google, On2, and the future of video codecs

As summarized in FSF’s open letter to Google, there is a strong case for Google releasing the VP8 video codec acquired from their purchase of On2 Technologies.

I agree with most of what is in this open letter from the FSF. However, I have some doubt that VP8 will be a better choice than Theora (itself a derivative of On2’s earlier VP3 codec) in the short term. The more likely path is something along the lines of the following:

  • VP8 is liberated (released under a free software license and with full royalty-free patent licenses, similar to how On2 released VP3 to
  •, other organizations, and/or the free software community at large steps up to clean up and improve the VP8 codebase.
  • The result is some successor to Theora, whatever it may be called, and probably won’t reach “1.0 release status” until 2013 at least.

From the open letter:

This ability to offer a free format on YouTube, however, is only a
tiny fraction of your real leverage. The real party starts when you begin to encourage users’ browsers to support free formats. There are lots of ways to do this. Our favorite would be for YouTube to switch from Flash to free formats and HTML, offering users with obsolete browsers a plugin or a new browser (free software, of course). Apple has had the mettle to ditch Flash on the iPhone and the iPad — albeit for suspect reasons and using abhorrent methods (DRM) — and this has pushed web developers to make Flash-free alternatives of their pages. You could do the same with YouTube, for better reasons, and it would be a death-blow to Flash’s dominance in web video.

I’ll go into detail on Apple’s suspect reasons since these are well-known to computing freedom and free software advocates, but probably less known to most “Joe Average” iPhone users.

Apple runs an App Store for the iPhone and this is, according to Apple, the only “blessed” method of getting applications onto the iPhone. It is possible to “jailbreak” an iPhone such that alternative third-party application repositories can be used. However, Apple has maintained this voids the iPhone’s warranty in addition to violating the DMCA, and at least one update has “bricked” (rendered completely inoperative) jailbroken iPhones.

The sum total is, as far as deciding what actually gets to run on the iPhone, it’s really less like a purchase than a rental. One is effectively renting the iPhone from Apple for a term of the iPhone’s useful life, and Apple retains the true ownership of the iPhone. If this seems just a bit absurd to you, that’s because it is. Most other phones will let you run any Java-based application and download almost any ringtone or wallpaper, giving you a warning that the download is not guaranteed by the wireless carrier or phone manufacturer. But Apple steps in and plays nanny. Anyway, that’s getting off the topic a bit.

The move from Flash-based video to free formats is inevitable. We don’t know what shape the VP8 code is in as far as cross-platform compatibility, and it took a great deal of hacking on VP3 to produce Theora.

The conclusion of the FSF’s open letter to Google is a commendable call to action:

You owe it to the public and to the medium that made you successful to solve this problem, for all of us, forever. Organizations like Xiph, Mozilla, Wikimedia, the FSF, and even On2 itself have recognized the need for free formats and fought hard to make it happen. Now it’s your turn. We’ll know if you do otherwise that your interest is not user freedom on the web, but Google’s dominance.

We all want you to do the right thing. Free VP8, and use it on YouTube!

I’d like to think Google has honorable intentions. However, just because Google decides not to free VP8 and immediately use it on YouTube does not necessarily mean Google intends to sit on VP8 or use it as a bargaining chip. It has already been shown that the argument against Theora on YouTube is FUD. If there’s a difference between Theora and H.264 at a similar bitrate, I’ll be damned if I can see it. The opinion is damn near unanimous that Vorbis blows away MP3 at a similar bitrate and is at least competitive with most everything else.

Google already has access to a free, unencumbered alternative to Flash for YouTube, and did before buying On2. If liberated, VP8 is the future for unencumbered video formats, but it may be too early to just jump in and use it now.