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WebM: It's Forgotten but Not Quite Gone

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I recently taught several seminars on producing video for HTML5, and I started my preparation with some research to see how the WebM codec was being used to determine the focus and scope of my WebM-related materials. In case you’ve forgotten — and you wouldn’t be the only one—WebM is the open source format Google launched in 2010, built around the VP8 video codec that Google acquired in its purchase of On2 Technologies.

Google announced the format with support from stalwarts such as Adobe and NVIDIA. Google subsidiary YouTube, of course, became the largest distributor of WebM encoded content. Not surprisingly, anti-H.264 stalwart Mozilla immediately embraced WebM, as did browser developer Opera. But Apple refused to support the new specification in Safari, as did Microsoft with IE 9.

The promised support from Adobe and NVIDIA never came, but it was Google itself that put the first nail in WebM’s coffin. In January 2011, Google announced that it was dropping support for H.264 in Chrome:

Though H.264 plays an important role in video, as our goal is to enable open innovation, support for the codec will be removed and our resources directed towards completely open codec technologies. These changes will occur in the next couple months but we are announcing them now to give content publishers and developers using HTML <video> an opportunity to make any necessary changes to their sites.

Last time I checked (the day I wrote this column), Chrome still played H.264 video. As recently as February 2012, a Google representative stated the following: “We have not backed off our plan to remove H.264 from the Chrome video tag, although we’ve not done so yet as we work with content providers to ensure a smooth transition.”

To me, this is just as silly as Google’s initial promise. Clearly, any content providers that planned to support WebM would have done so already. If anything, removing H.264 support would hurt Chrome competitively and slow the adoption of HTML5, which has centered around H.264 for one simple reason: It plays on all desktops, either through HTML5 support or Flash, and all relevant mobile platforms.

Speaking of mobile, given that the Android platform needs H.264 playback to compete with iOS, it’s inconceivable that Google would withdraw H.264 support on that platform. Which left Mozilla as the only major browser that didn’t support H.264.

In August 2012, a Mozilla blog post indicated that it was adding support for H.264 playback in the Android version of Firefox. The company says it’s building upon the H.264 playback capabilities supplied by Google in the Android OS, not licensing the H.264 codec. It also appears that Mozilla is at least debating adding support for H.264 and other system codecs in other browser versions the same fashion; the H.264 video plays fine within the browser but carries no royalty obligation.

With Mozilla considering H.264 and Google refusing to drop it from Chrome, it seems unlikely that WebM will play a significant role in general-purpose streaming going forward. On a positive note, WebM did accomplish two useful functions.

First, it wasn’t until after Google released WebM that MPEG-LA announced that free internet distribution of H.264 video would be royalty-free, and I doubt that would have happened absent the viable alternative that WebM promised. Second, WebM quieted all those annoying Ogg Theora promoters who fervently (and incorrectly) believed that Ogg was the future of HTML5 video. Beyond those two achievements, however, WebM is truly forgotten, though not quite gone. 

This article appeared in the December 2012/January 2013 issue of Streaming Media magazine under the title "WebM: Forgotten but Not Quite Gone."

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