For YouTube users, the change isn't likely to be noticeable: They will be able to see WebM videos in Firefox 4+, Opera 10.60+, Chrome 6+, or Internet Explorer 9--with the appropriate plug-in--through YouTube's experimental HTML5 player rather than seeing H.264 versions of those videos presented in a Flash container. Nonetheless, as Mozilla's director of community development, Aza Dotzler, put it, "this matters a lot."
WebM is a video container format launched last year that includes Google's royalty-free VP8 video codec and the Vorbis audio codec. It is intended as an alternative to H.264, a proprietary video codec managed by MPEG LA, a patent licensing organization that counts Apple and Microsoft as members.
As Google described the situation in January, the leading browser makers--Apple, Google, Microsoft, Mozilla, and Opera--and others involved in setting Web media standards are at an impasse. Google, Mozilla, and Opera support open formats like VP8 and Ogg Theora; Apple and Microsoft support H.264, mainly because they own some of the relevant patents.
It's an issue that may end up in court: In February, MPEG LA asked patent holders who believe VP8 infringes on their intellectual property to step forward. If any evidence of infringement can be uncovered, litigation would be the next likely step. Last year, Apple CEO Steve Jobs indicated that a patent pool was being assembled to attack Theora.
In January, Google said it plans to discontinue support for H.264 in Chrome, citing potential licensing costs to small companies and potential harm to innovation. Microsoft responded by offering an H.264 plug-in for users of Google Chrome, as it did previously for Mozilla Firefox users. It has also challenged Google to indemnify usage of WebM, in case patent claims do arise.
YouTube software engineer James Zern insists that YouTube will continue to support H.264. But the company is clearly pushing WebM: It has already transcoded 30% of its videos into WebM, specifically its most popular videos, the ones attracting 99% of all views. Nonetheless, there's considerable work ahead: Zern says six years of video--52,560 hours--get uploaded to YouTube every day.
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