Online Video Tech Spec Wars

Written by FreshEgg Administrator - 02 Mar 2011

Good SEO needs to have a comprehensive knowledge of everything ‘internet’ and coinciding with our move in new and sexier premises, Fresh Egg’s team have been indulging in research work that reflects their own interests or topics on which they've been tasked.   With video being such a big thing at the moment it’s a good idea to have an understanding of some of the technology behind things.   Kim Hutson - who will be posting in her own right very soon - has been doing some pathfinding in this territory.  What follows are just some of Kim's  initial findings and  conclusions that she’s happy to share and would welcome comments…

What are video codecs?

The technical specifications behind online video codecs are big news at the moment, but just what are they?  Codecs are a piece of technology that compress and decompress the data that makes up a video.  They take all the visual information and all the audio information and allow us to upload it to the net then stream it.   So what’s all the current fuss about?

Until last year there were only really two main players:  Ogg Theora and H.264.

Ogg Theora did an OK job in terms of producing good quality video but the file sizes were too big (Google once said if they used Theora on all their YouTube videos, they’d take up all the bandwidth on the net) but Ogg Theora was open source so therefore free and popular!

H.264 on the other hand produces very good quality video at a more reasonable size but it is  patent protected which means the browsers had to pay royalties  (thought to be in the region of $6.5 million a year)  to the guys who  owned this technology.  Sums like that are  nothing to the big players like Microsoft and Google but this wasn’t very feasible for guys like Firefox and Opera who didn’t have international computer companies or ad ventures to bankroll their search engines.

Google Bigs up VP8

Google decreed that there was a need for something that worked to the same high standard as H.264 but was open source and free for anyone to use, so they looked around and decided to buy out a company called On2 who had developed a programme called WebM and the VP8 codec. Google also purchased all the patent protection and copyright so they could give the technology away for free. And this apparently is what upset everyone else.

So if it’s good quality and free, why won’t people jump on the VP8 bandwagon?

Well, before the arrival of VP8, H.264 had almost become the de-facto web standard.  It appeared to be everywhere from your Blu Ray and digital TV players to all Apple’s devices like their iPhones, iPads and iPods.  Whatever way you look at it, both Microsoft and Apple have spent a lot of money making all their products H.264 friendly. The more cynical may regard this intransigence by Microsoft as yet another attempt by the giant to squeeze out any potential competition as the little guy cannot afford to run H.264.

Whose move is it now?

A few weeks ago Google adding fuel to the flame by announcing they were no longer going to support H.264 in their Chrome browser, but for the moment the war seems to be in a state of temporary stalemate and ceasefire.  Apple arguably has market dominance in mobile video with their iPhones, iPods and iPads and when it comes to online video YouTube have the market cornered.

If Google were to really put their money where their mouth is they’d have to support VP8 on YouTube but this would mean alienating a lot of their mobile audience. It would also be a huge job:  they’d have to re-encode all their billions of existing videos which would be a drain on resources (even for Google). The vast majority of video on YouTube is available in the WebM format so the chances of Google completely pulling support for H.264 (like it’s just done in Chrome) must be very slim.    In one corner we currently have Microsoft and Apple backing H.264 and in the other we have Google, Mozilla and Adobe backing VP8.

Before online video can move forward, somebody’s got to make a decision and until someone does makes a logical technologically-driven choice (but one that could be financially dis-advantageous for that given party) we’re stuck!