A better analysis of WebMs strengths and weaknesses
MPEG LA, the firm that licenses (monetizes) patent pools covering essential patents required for use of the MPEG standards, has called for submissions of patents to a pool that might be essential to the VP8 codec. VP8 as you might know is the codec used for WebM, the Open Source community’s choice for an open HTML5 video standard. WebM is being developed by Google and is provided royalty-free. It’s backed by Mozilla and Opera among many others. The competitor to WebM is H264 owned by MPEG LA and backed by Apple and Microsoft. Google only recently announced dropping support for H264 in Chrome.
At one time Ogg Theora was the required codec in the HTML5 specification by WhatWG, but it had to be removed because Apple and Microsoft didn’t want to support it. The theory being because the feared submarine patents that might slap them in the face later. Since then it had been unclear if there ever would be just one accepted codec for HTML5 video. Google then came to the rescue, bought On2 a codec developer and freed its quality codec VP8, put it inside WebM and together with Mozilla and Opera promoted it as the new, free web video format.
There has been much confusion about the WebM video standard. One of the main questions was whether WebM had any chance of survival against the threat of submarine patents. MPEG LA’s announcement shows that this issue is not resolved but maybe the process they have started will result in a clearer situation. If no patent pool can be assembled by MPEG LA WebM is probably much more likely to be embraced by implementers. Also many commentors have claimed that WebM (stadily confusing the container with the codec) was far inferior to H264 and that H264 was available royalty-free. (To get an impression about the storm of unsourced opinions that dominated the discussion take a look at the comments in Google’s clarification of its announcement to drop H264 in Chrome http://blog.chromium.org/2011/01/more-about-chrome-html-video-codec.html)
Carlo Daffara has written a short but very good analysis of VP8 in his blog that sheds some light on those issues. http://carlodaffara.conecta.it/on-webm-again-freedom-quality-patents/
His main points:
- VP8 is comparable to H264 in terms of quality
- VP8 design decisions were made to avoid preexisting patents
- H264 playback is free only for non-commercial use. Its license is incompatible with free software.
- The evolution of WebM is strictly in the hand of Google, which may not be open enough
- Google provides no protection against other potential infringing patents, but neither does MPEG LA
He also comes to a not so surprising conclusion:
Software patents are [...] a great friction in the capability of companies and researchers to bring innovation to the market. Something that, curiously, patent promoters describe as their first motivation.
As for WebM’s ability to be improved over time, Carlo Daffara writes in the comments of the article:
…a problem of the current patent environment is that there are not only the H264 patents to avoid, but an entire minefield that is extremely hard to travel unscathed.
So, remember this: You might write the greatest, coolest, most disruptive open software imaginable. But you might still be hit be someone owning a diffuse patent on one or many ideas present in your product. At least as soon as you’re making money!