Free VP8 vs. Ogg/Theora

Ogg Theora seems to be really good at handling super-saturated images of vegetation

The Free Software Foundation has suggested to Google that it might want to make VP8 “irrevocably royalty free” (whatever that means—will it cover future developments of VP8?). Of course at the same time they argue that Ogg/Theora is as-good-or-better than H264 and of course it’s both open source and royalty free.

I’m not sure if I buy the quality argument (for a start, the article linked is almost entirely about image quality and not, for example, about compression time/effort or playback time/effort; next, Ogg/Theora may be very good at handling supersaturated images of vegetation growing near a river, but how does it do on more realistically saturated fleshtones? Most lossy codecs sacrifice blue detail in particular, so this may be a boneheaded comparison), but certainly Ogg/Theora is at least in the ballpark, and it’s free, so what’s the advantage of having an “irrevocably royalty free” VP8 as an alternative?

There are two major reasons why the world hasn’t embraced Ogg/Theora.

First of all, there’s lack of hardware support. Silicon that will decode H264 (not that desktop PCs or even laptops actually make much use of this hardware) with virtually no effort (for which read battery power) is available free with a box of cereal. No such hardware exists for VP8 or Ogg/Theora.

Let’s look ahead five years or so. We’d presumably like for there to be silicon that decodes our favorite video format free in boxes of cereal. We already have that for H264, is having such a chip available for VP8 going to make Ogg/Theora hardware support more or less likely?

Second, there’s the question of whether Ogg/Theora is actually unencumbered. H264 is, in essence, a known quantity. It’s backed by a huge bunch of megacorporations who have pooled their patents; even if someone comes along who claims to have a vital patent covering some obscure nook of H264′s implementation the participants in the H264 patent pool have lots of money, lawyers, and patents to with which to defend themselves (and they’re juicier targets than we are).

Ogg/Theora hasn’t been sued because no-one is making significant (any?) money with it, which in turn means there’s no reason for someone who thinks they could sue over it (a) to do so, or (b) even to let it be known they think they could do so (which is condemnation enough of our patent system).

If this were 1990 and we were talking about image file formats, “GIF” would be unencumbered. The GIF lawsuit only happened when someone figured there’d be money in it, and that was only true when lots of people became invested in using GIFs.

Here, we assume, VP8 has a huge advantage over Ogg/Theora because, presumably, Google has money, lawyers, and a patent portfolio. But unless VP8 is open sourced, I really don’t see the point. We’ll just be trading one master for another in the long run, since either VP8 won’t continue to evolve and will need to be replaced in fairly short order or it will and then it’s up to Google to figure out whether the new version is covered under “irrevocably”.

Addendum: really nice article on the whole Flash / VP8 / Theora / H264 / HTML5 thing (courtesy of daringfireball as usual). And yup, Theora’s claims to superior quality are a Sad Joke.

Google, On2, and Onward for <video>

Google’s recently announced acquisition of On2 paves the way for the possibility of a Flash-free future (F-cubed?).

With Adobe’s desire to push all of its most annoying technologies into Flash (witness the recent vulnerabilities caused by the interplay between PDF and Flash), the unpleasantness of Flash and the need to have it in order to play FLV video streams, and the way FLV is presented to the browser (as a URL to a SWF file along with completely arbitrary information telling that SWF file where to find the FLV), are all enough to give anyone trying to present videos nicely in a browser something of a stomach ache.

But now, Google owns On2 who, in turn, own VP6 (the most popular Flash video codec).

Ideally, this means that Google might release an FLV plugin for popular browsers that allows them to play Flash video directly without the need for a SWF player, or — better yet — simply release open source playback code for VP6 (if necessary providing the glue code for Webkit and Mozilla to play FLVs encoded with VP6 inside <video> tags). Without an enormous amount of effort, the need for Flash to play FLV video could be hugely reduced. Most FLV video is played using YouTube or JWPlayer and similar products. It wouldn’t be hard to infer the FLV url and ignore the player (certainly, it would be an easy thing to do as a Firefox Plugin).

Now, if Flash isn’t necessary to play video, exactly why would we want it? Oh, right, banner ads and games.