Why VP8 matters

May 10, 2010

This post was made prior to the Google IO conference which is May 19 -> 20th, and as such things may change after this date.

VP8 is potentially a game-changer in the realm of both streaming, High-Definition, and mobile video devices. It also has the potential to help in the killing of Adobe Flash, and solve the HTML5 Video format war.

Currently there are two formats that are used in HTML5 Video by differing browsers: Ogg Theora and h.264

Both have support from different browsers, both have different camps fighting for their success, and both have their pros and cons.

Ogg Theora is open-source, and is supported by Mozilla Firefox and Opera.

h.264 is a proprietary codec with paid licenses, it’s supported by Safari and the upcoming Internet Explorer 9 (1).

Google Chrome currently supports both h.264 and Ogg Theora video.

A little history

Ogg Theora was open-sourced a while back now. Previously it was known as VP3, initially made by a company called On2 Technologies. On2 have recently been purchased by Google, and their latest and greatest codec VP8 is a real contender for h.264 video, but currently is under a restrictive license. An example of a “standard” piece of encoding software costs around USD$39.

The arguement

There are reasons why you want to use Ogg Theora and there are reasons why you don’t. I’ll list them all in bullet points, just for ease of reading, and because I’m lazy:

  • Ogg Theora is open-source, therefor free and can be easily incorporated into a browser
  • Because it is open-source, people fear it may suffer lawsuits due to software patent infringement (2)
  • h.264 is arguably better quality, though those from the Theora camp say that they can match or better the quality of h.264 with fine tuning, personally I’ve found that h.264 is better.
  • High Definition video requires quite a bit of processing power to decode (Well and even to encode), so it can suck battery life out of things like Cellphones or iPods etc like crazy. h.264 is particularly CPU intensive even when standard or mobile definitions.
  • VP8 is supposed to use around 50% the CPU requirements to decode the same video, when compared with h.264 (3)
  • VP8 uses less bandwidth to achieve the same quality (4)
  • VP8 is able to adjust its quality in realtime, based on things such as CPU use and bandwidth available, and as such would be superb for video conferencing (5)
  • h.264 video is currently free for use in browsers until the year 2016, but after that who knows, the patent owners could begin charging. If h.264 is *the* codec that’s used on the web, why wouldn’t they, and make millions? (6)
  • Apple is also heavily invested in h.264 with their iPhone / iPad / iPod Touch platforms, they’re specifically against flash

Why this all matters? Why not flash?

Well, in a world that’s heading towards Touchscreens amongst other things, there’s less and less reasons why people would want to use Flash.

Known for being horribly insecure and one of the main reasons why an OS would crash, it’s renowned for being CPU and bandwidth intensive (7).

HTML5 is a way to replace Flash for almost everything, and it’s going to die a slow death (My own prediction there), but it’s going to happen.

What matters is finding a suitable replacement to the current Flash-Video, prior to the finalizing of the HTML5 specification.

The options

If we go with Ogg Theora, it’s free and open-source, but may come under fire from lawsuits. It’s debated that the quality isn’t as good as h.264 either

If we go with h.264, it’s licensed and popular already, but the owners could begin to hold the world ransom from 2016, and then the world would either have to pay up, or overnight switch to something else. That’s what the team over at Mozilla is worried about.

We could go with something like VP8, if open-sourced. It’s got Google behind it, so immediately if they start using it on YouTube, then millions of PC’s would suddenly support the codec in order to play back the video.

If it’s open-source, it’ll keep the Opera & Mozilla camps happy. If it’s not Flash, it’ll keep Apple (Safari) happy, and they could potentially use it in their iPhones etc with an update. Google own it, so naturally they’d support it in Chrome, which just leaves Microsoft. They really want their own Silverlight, but they’re the only ones, and nobody else seems to like that idea, so they’ll basically just have to suck it up and go along with it even if they don’t like it. Besides, it’d be in their best interests in the long run, compared with h.264 anyway.


This is why we need VP8 to be open-sourced, and for Google to push it via YouTube.

Flash will die

VP8 will use less bandwidth and CPU compared with h.264, so it’s great for mobile devices like iPhones / iPods / Laptops on battery, and embedded devices like Media Centers. Being open-source will mean people can work on hardware acceleration for encoding / decoding for their particular device (if applicable), and it’ll mean that the world isn’t about to be held to ransom over the code (Worst-case is Google does though ..).


1) http://blogs.msdn.com/ie/archive/2010/04/29/html5-video.aspx

2) http://yro.slashdot.org/story/10/04/30/237238/Steve-Jobs-Hints-At-Theora-Lawsuit

3) http://www.on2.com/index.php?605

4) http://www.on2.com/index.php?564

5) http://www.on2.com/index.php?606

6) http://newteevee.com/2010/02/04/good-news-for-html5-h-264-streaming-will-remain-free/

7) http://www.apple.com/hotnews/thoughts-on-flash/


One comment

  1. Quite informative. I await the Google announcement…

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