H.264 vs. WebM

Update: At the end, I spell out why Apple “has a brain”.

In my post yesterday, I asked the question: Why is Apple promoting H.264 so heavily when they have only 1 patent in the pool?

The answer is: They have a brain. Well more importantly, they have money.

Google bought On2 Technologies and acquired the technology behind the VP[X] codecs. An open source branch of VP3 became Ogg Theora and was used as a free, but crummy video codec. VP8 is the foundation of WebM, the unencumbered, royalty free codec.

So HTML 5 has a video tag and people are fighting over what standard to use: WebM or H.264. MPEG-LA previously announced that H.264 would be royalty-free within free applications until the end of 2015 (PDF Press Release). Yesterday, they announced H.264 would be royalty-free forever (PDF Press Release).

Mozilla’s Vice President of Engineering, Mike Shaver says this doesn’t go far enough. I thought he was an idiot momentarily until I thought it through. His take:

The MPEG-LA announcement doesn’t change anything for the next four years, since this promise was already made through 2014…Given that IEC [International Electrotechnical Commission] has already started accepting submissions for patents in the replacement H.265 standard, and the rise of unencumbered formats like WebM, it is not clear if H.264 will still be relevant in 2014.

The big piece missing from the MPEG-LA announcements are the patent encumberence of H.264 and by extension H.265. Beltzer Shaver believes that by 2015, H.264 may not be relevant as H.265 will take its place (and he’s probably right). But what he may not be right about is the unencumberence of WebM.

Steve Jobs weighs in on the encumberence issue stating via email:

All video codecs are covered by patents. A patent pool is being assembled to go after Theora and other “open source” codecs now. Unfortunately, just because something is open source, it doesn’t mean or guarantee that it doesn’t infringe on others patents. An open standard is different from being royalty free or open source.

x264 developer Jason Garrett-Glaser has an excellent piece on VP8. For the tl;dr crowd, he states (emphasis, his):

Overall, VP8 appears to be significantly weaker than H.264 compression-wise.

And more importantly:

Finally, the problem of patents appears to be rearing its ugly head again. VP8 is simply way too similar to H.264: a pithy, if slightly inaccurate, description of VP8 would be “H.264 Baseline Profile with a better entropy coder”. Even VC-1 differed more from H.264 than VP8 does, and even VC-1 didn’t manage to escape the clutches of software patents.

And finally:

It’s quite possible that VP8 has no patent issues, but until we get some hard evidence that VP8 is safe, I would be cautious. Since Google is not indemnifying users of VP8 from patent lawsuits, this is even more of a potential problem.

Next, as far as that patent pool Jobs was talking about, Larry Horn, CEO of MPEG-LA, and John Paczkowski of Daily Digital discuss

John Paczkowski: Let me ask you this: Are you creating a patent pool license for VP8 and WebM? Have you been approached about creating one?

Larry Horn: Yes, in view of the marketplace uncertainties regarding patent licensing needs for such technologies, there have been expressions of interest from the market urging us to facilitate formation of licenses that would address the market’s need for a convenient one-stop marketplace alternative to negotiating separate licenses with individual patent holders in accessing essential patent rights for VP8 as well as other codecs, and we are looking into the prospects of doing so.

Rock and hard place. I understand where Mike Shaver is coming from now, but I don’t think his options are very favorable either way.

So back to Apple and its smarts. By not dealing with WebM and paying royalties for H.264, Apple avoids the potential legal mess it could get into over patents. They pay the royalty anyway for OS X, so adding it to Safari is a no-brainer.

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