Photo: Associated Press
Google may have just entered a new battlefront with Apple at the “I/O” developers conference when it took the wraps off its plans for the VP8 video codec.While this battle is not as transparent, or sexy, as Android versus iPhone, it’s going to create yet another point of tension for the two companies.
Google’s big open video plan is called the WebM project. It will make the VP8 video codec, which it acquired when it bought On2 for $133 million, open source. It will also use the open source Vorbis codec for audio.
When Google announced the new open source project, it said it was partnering with Mozilla, Opera, Google Chrome, Adobe, and others to proliferate the standard across the web.
Apple is missing because it put its full support behind another video codec, H.264. H.264 is not an open standard. H.264 is free to use for the next five years, but after anything could happen. MPEG LA has not made a decision on what it will do after December 31st, 2015.
It is a proprietary standard, owned by a consortium of tech companies called MPEG LA. Apple and Microsoft have both contributed patents to MPEG LA, so they are part of the consortium.
Those patents are important. Steve Jobs has hinted he will be doing all he can to protect them. In an email to Hugo Roy of the Free Software Foundation, Steve Jobs wrote (our emphasis added):
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.
We don’t know, but we suspect that Steve Jobs knew Google was planning on open sourcing its video format when he wrote this. While he specifically mentions Ogg Theora, he also mentions “other ‘open source’ codecs,” suggesting that Apple could be mulling plans to sue Google over the VP8 codec format.
This wouldn’t be Apple’s first patent lawsuit aimed at Google. Let’s not forget it’s also suing HTC, a big Android customer.
Aside from the possible patent issues, this codec bothers Apple for other reasons, according to web video experts.
We spoke with Peter Csathy, CEO of Sorenson Media and David Dudas, VP of product development about Google’s VP8 announcement. Sorenson Media has been involved in video encoding and compression for over a decade.
Peter and David speculated that Apple doesn’t like VP8 for the following reasons:
- Apple is a control freak, and it doesn’t like the idea of Google having control over a new video format, even if it is open source. Apple is closed, it likes its own quality control. With H.264, it has some of that.
- Apple has been getting companies to commit to H.264 format. That works well for transmitting video on iPads and iPhones. If another format comes along, it could mess that up.
- Apple is battling with Google. Why would it help proliferate VP8? The new standard is only going to help Google. Peter and David think Google can monetise from this new format in a number of ways — from advertising to cloud services. It will also help Android, Google TV, and Google’s tablet efforts, they say. Conversly, it’s unclear what Apple gains from it.
Admittedly, it’s still early in whole messy codec-war. And as you probably noticed, it’s also very complicated. It’s entirely possible Apple will eventually announce support for WebM once it gets a better look at it.
Lately, though, Apple has not been in the mood to play nice with competitors. We’ve already mentioned its lawsuit against HTC. It’s also in a lawsuit war with Nokia. Then there’s also the nasty spat is has going with Adobe. Remember also, CNBC reported Steve Jobs hates Google CEO Eric Schmidt now.
If Google plans a new format that will give it more control over web video, possibly hurting Apple in anyway, we don’t see any reason for Apple to let this one go. So, get ready for more fireworks between the two tech companies.
This time it could be over video codecs, of all things.