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VP8: Where next for Google’s video format?

What’s the point of VP8, Google’s alternative video compression format which the company released in 2010? VP8 wasn’t just promoted as an option – the company actually said it would phase out support for H.264 in Chrome, and replace it with VP8. Given Chrome’s incredible rise in popularity, this would have been a major blow to H.264.

Fast forward to now, and that strategy looks like it’s in tatters. Chrome retains support for H.264, and has expanded it further, and few sites (except for Google’s own YouTube) even support VP8. Far from being unencumbered by patents, as Google claimed at the time, the company has been forced to take a license to a pool of FRAND patents adminstered by MPEG LA, and other companies continue to claim VP8 infringes on their patents too.

Video compression is an area that’s heavily patented, but also widely licensed under FRAND terms. This is partly because compression is such a core part of what computers are expected to do these days that it’s to everyone’s benefit to ensure that patents are widely licenses. It’s mostly better to pool your patents with others and get either a couple of cents from hundreds of millions of devices or avoid paying the same fee on your own.

I’m at a loss to understand what Google thought it was doing with VP8. Given then vast range of patents in this area, it was never likely that Google could create a patent-free codec that performed equal to or better than H.264 unless it made some significant breakthrough in technology.

Yes, if it had made such a breakthrough, it would lower its own licensing costs for YouTube and every other property it has which uses video. But given that the licensing costs for H.264 are not exactly onerous, it’s probably ended up spending more on lawyers fees in an attempt to claim that VP8 doesn’t violate patents than it could ever have saved just licensing H.264.

The saga of VP8 smacks a little of corporate immaturity. In most cases, that is one of Google’s strengths, because it allows the company to disrupt product categories and gain footholds in new territory.

But when dealing with something as heavily patented as video compression, that strength becomes a weakness. As with many of Google’s brushes with the law, the company seems to see legalities as something it can legitimately try and “hack”, rather than just following the same rules as everyone else. By and large, though the law isn’t amenable to hacking, and the VP8 case is just another example of this.

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  • joelgwebber

    I don’t think it’s fair to characterize Google’s attempt to provide a patent-free codec as immaturity or naiveté. Video is an incredibly important medium for communication, and many believe it’s incredibly important that there be open standards for such communication that don’t come with royalty payments (especially when you consider the effect of such payments on otherwise “free” software, where no money normally changes hands).

    Nor do I think that its attempt to navigate the treacherous waters of codec patents is a “hack” — just because hundreds of often trivial variations on common encoding methods have been patented doesn’t mean that they’re all justified. I for one am happy that Google’s willing to take a significant financial risk in the pursuit of a viable open standard for internet video.