This is a quick update to yesterday’s post titled “Google opens the VP8 Codec“. In that post I described the lay of the land for current software developers interested in the online video space, the battle around which codec will become the defacto standard for HTML5 video, and what it all means for us.
Almost as soon as I posted, it needed updating – the news is coming quick and fast. All of the involved companies seem to realise that this is a major turning point in the web and they all want it going their way. Most of the contenders realise that they themselves don’t have the sway to push this issue by themselves and it is quickly devolving into a fight between two camps. Team Google, and Team Apple, with two different technologies and two completely opposed philosophical outlooks on the way the technology world should work.
In my previous post I accidental missed one of the contenders here, as they are really of only tangential influence in the current debate. To summarise once more, the five players in this drama are Apple, Google, Microsoft, the Mozilla foundation and Opera Software – each has its own browser with its own dedicated followers and a greater or smaller percentage of the overall browser market: Safari, Chrome, Internet Explorer, Firefox and Opera.
To catch up on the basics of the issues, please view my last post – we will now deal with the rapidly changing landscape and how it already differs from what I laid out yesterday. There is no doubt that everyone was waiting for this announcement from Google, given the speed that the other players have made their responses.
To start, Firefox and Opera both supported the Ogg Theora codec as the default (and only) HTML5 video codec. Mozilla have been very vocal on this point, routinely calling for support in preventing H.264 from becoming a patent encumbered defacto standard. It was announced yesterday that current developer editions, from the nightly builds, of Firefox and Opera also support VP8 – throwing their weight behind Google and the newly opened codec.
These three then, Firefox, Opera and Chrome, represent a majority amount of the browser marketplace. According to the W3 Schools market share report, these three contenders represent 62.2% of the Browser market share.
It is no surprise then that Microsoft, despite reservations, announced support for VP8 in Internet Explorer 8. Not native support, it must be said, however they have stated that anyone who has the VP8 codec installed themselves will be able to view VP8 video via the HTML5 video tag in IE8. This to me is a very defensive position for Microsoft, obviously they’re still worried about patent attacks and so don’t want to bundle a potentially encumbered codec with their own browser. However this move also shows that they realise they can’t ignore the potential of VP8 to break through H.264′s stranglehold and become the web standard. They can’t decide which camp to bet on, so they’re betting both.
Whilst native support would have been better, this is still a partial win for VP8 supporters and raises the total Browser market share of VP8 compatible browsers to 78.4%, assuming that VP8 support will be coming only for IE8. This is a near overwhelming victory, as the remaining market-share is split between IE7 and 6, who combined equal about 17.2% of the market share (hands up if you can’t believe that IE6 still commands 7.9%. Upgrade people!) and Safari, the last remaining hold-out, with a tiny market share of only 3.7%.
Given that IE7 and 6 are unlikely to be upgraded at all for HTML5 support, we can effectively count out 17.2% of the market from this discussion – they’re unlikely to get any codec until they upgrade. So only 82.1% of the market are actually involved in this discussion at all. What this means then is for all the people who will be able to access HTML5 video, 95.4% will be able to access VP8 (either natively or by installing the codec themselves).The 4.5% using Safari will be the only ones who cannot.
Compare this to Ogg Theora, supported by only Firefox, Chrome and Opera, and you have a potential market of 75% of the browser market. Still a goodly amount, but you’re missing anyone using Safari or Internet Explorer.
H.264 is supported by Chrome, Safari and Internet Explorer. This is the only codec safari users can see and is supported by only 40% of the potential marketplace.
Numbers like this would normally mean that VP8 was a clear winner already and the battle was over before it began, H.264 is a no-starter. What does Apple and the mighty Steve Jobs have to say about this?
According to an article at The Register: VP8 is a bad choice because it will be liable to the same attacks as Ogg Theora on the patent front, and it performs slower and with worse compression than H.264. Their evidence for the poor performance? As linked in the article, a paper written by college student supporter of H.264 and contributor to an open source decoder of same, who claims VP8 performs poorly and will not rival H.264 in any way, and the spec is poor and unlikely to be corrected by Google.
This is the reality distortion field in full effect and it will be interesting to see the Jobs supporters rally behind this particular piece of FUD. I am not qualified personally to judge the quality of VP8 vs H.264. A quick search on the net shows the world is divided between those that think it is better, those who claim it is not and those who really don’t see any difference. I think the quality issue for web video is itself a non-starter, the 95% support ratio would, under normal circumstances, push that aside as it has in technological battles before. Quality of tech generally comes second to ease of use and compatibility with content. If all the sites you like use VP8, you’re unlikely to care that H.264 is better.
That said, this move shows the supreme arrogance of the Apple community. What Jobs is saying with a one line email is that we believe VP8 is no threat because a college student said so. Now this college student might be the worlds best video codec analyst, but… how is anyone to know? One college student’s opinion versus Google’s engineers, On2′s original developers, and every other person who has played with the tech and pronounced it good.
Enough on that, as I said, it’s likely a non-issue. The real issue is that Apple is holding firm – no VP8 support, H.264 only. What does this mean for us?
I’d love to call this one for VP8 with overwhelming support, Google standing behind it stating they are completely unafraid of potential patent trolls and 95% of the available market supporting the codec.
We can’t though. Apple, despite having only a 3.3% share of the browser market, has a 100% share of the iPhone market. With no support for Flash, currently H.264 is the only way to get video to those devices. Sure, overall this portion of the market is relatively small, and Android will no doubt have VP8 support – but the issue is this. This battle will, in the end, be decided by us. The developers. If the majority of sites go VP8 as the defacto standard, Apple will more and more feel the pressure to include support for it in the iPhone Safari client as the iPhone users get more and more frustrated at their inability to view those sites.
The question remaining is how many developers are willing to cut out such a, some would say inordinately visible, section of their market? iPhone uptake is pushing many of the larger sites towards HTML5, and with that as their driver they are unlikely to choose a video codec that the iPhone doesn’t support.
The battle is far from over everyone, and we still can’t call a winner here. Don’t doubt for a second that Jobs understands the mindshare and brand power he wields with his “magical” devices, and don’t doubt that he will use every ounce of leverage he has to make the world conform to his reality distortion field.
I will continue to update as more news comes in, however for now I think my previous advice still stands. The safest route is H.264 with a Flash backup for Opera and Firefox who don’t support it.
My preferred option? I have to say i’m weighing in with VP8 here. I had really thought we’d left behind the time when we coded the same page in different ways to cater for differences in browsers. We need a standard web, and that means, a standard video codec.
Thoughts anyone? Have I missed anything or am I just plain nuts? Let me know in the comments.