Video far from Clear

by Dave Michels

Lots of news in video recently.

A few months back, Google announced WebM – a royalty free licensing program using the GIPs VP8 video codec it acquired (Skype uses VP7 for video between Skype clients). The move threatened the patent heavy H.264 which is the predominant standard in video streaming and SIP based video conferencing (Skype uses H.264 to hardware endpoints like televisions). H.264 was available for free streaming to consumers which is why it is included in Apple and Windows operating systems, but it only promised to be free until 2016.

Well, likely as a result of WebM, MPEG LA the group that controls H.264 is now promising royalty free streaming to consumers forever. The drama isn’t over yet, MPEG LA is also evaluating ways to force royalties from WebM users. That just might be enough for developers to lose interest in WebM – but there is another way this could unfold.

Google’s calling software in Gmail requires a browser plugin for voice and video. The new calling capabilities are being tried by many (lots of downloaded installations) and each and every one of these users is installing video capable software. The plugin or some client software is required since a web based codec isn’t very effective. Google’s video plugin has been available for quite some time, but nothing like free calls to improve adoption rates. I think it was very clever (Trojan Horse like) of Google to combine the plugin into one.

Apple launched Facetime just months ago, and new Android phones are being introduced every month. I expect to see a dual camera Android phone to be available soon – and surprise – end to end video won’t be too far off. With a million calls placed over Google in just 24 hours, this is likely the fastest a new video codec has ever rolled out (excluding Skype upgrades). The codecs used in the plugin are not known, but presumably they came from GIPS.

It is likely Google is using VP7 or VP8 (WebM), if so, it isn’t that far of a leap to make Skype and Google videoconferencing interoperable. That would benefit Google more than Skype. Skype keeps its signaling methods proprietary, but should the two interoperate, it is big news for desktop video. Google and Skype combined will be the largest videoconferencing network – and that just might lure some H.264 users, especially board video room systems, to the party. Ah, but that royalty free to consumers license won’t help.

In other news, did Microsoft kill SilverLight?

Apple isn’t alone with a dislike for Adobe Flash – both Apple and Microsoft would like to see Adobe’s grasp on Internet video diminished. Perhaps that is why Adobe favors WebM too, enemies of my enemies (Google) must be a friend. Microsoft went big with Silverlight and put all of its muscle behind an impressive launch. But we hear less and less about it now – and one of its big supporters, Blockbuster Video, has its attention now focused on imminent bankruptcy.

Adobe is having a tough time proving Steve Jobs a liar. Most Android phones still don’t support Flash yet, and those that do aren’t particularly happy with it. Check out this video on Flash performance. is speculating that Microsoft is dropping SilverLight, but there hasn’t been any announcements. I have to say, as surprised as I was that Microsoft killed the Kin, I would not find it surprising if this one is true.

Other video news: Apple refreshes it’s failed iTV and cuts its price – no competes with Roku which had just lowered its prices. Boxee came out with a new release and expects their first hardware device to be available soon. Dish is getting closer to releasing their GoogleTV box. Amazon is about to relaunch its video streaming services – probably incorporating lessons learned (stolen?) from its AWS mega-success customer Netflix.

So here we are in 2010 – twenty plus years into the Internet revolution and video standards are still pretty rough.