Google Introduces WebM, Web Media Format to Compete with H.264

Today at the I/O conference, Google introduced WebM, a new open-source web media format that’s backed by many of the industry’s web giants–though not Apple.

The first day of Google‘s I/O conference was short on exciting consumer news–no Google TV, no Android 2.2, just a bunch of developer tools (I know, I know, it’s a developer conference, but we’re not developers, and we want consumer-focused announcements). The one exception might be the introduction of WebM, an “open web media project” that’s focused on providing an entirely open-source, free Web standard for audio and video to compete with H.264, which is in part owned by both Apple and Microsoft.


In broad strokes, WebM is VP8, a video codec, which can be accompanied by Vorbis audio and a Matroska container. Matroska and Vorbis are long-running open-source projects with varying degrees of popularity but likely familiar to anyone who’s dabbled in much digital media. From Google:

The team that created VP8 have been pioneers in video codec development for over a decade. VP8 delivers high quality video while efficiently adapting to the varying processing and bandwidth conditions found on today’s broad range of web-connected devices. VP8’s efficient bandwidth usage will mean lower serving costs for content publishers and high quality video for end-users. The codec’s relative simplicity makes it easy to integrate into existing environments and requires less manual tuning to produce high quality results. These existing attributes and the rapid innovation we expect through the open-development process make VP8 well suited for the unique requirements of video on the web.

So who’s supporting WebM? Web browsers, to start with: Google Chrome is obviously on board, as is Firefox and Opera, and Microsoft announced they’d be supporting it but not natively (meaning you’ll have to download a plug-in–not a big deal).

Apple’s Safari browser is a more interesting case, because Apple owns in part (or at least receives royalties from) H.264, a competing format. AppleInsider has a good analysis of why Apple may not support it, as well as opinion from an expert who deems WebM pretty much garbage, and possibly stolen garbage.

But Google, who’s spearheading the entirely open-source (and entirely free) standard, also owns the majority of the world’s Web video with YouTube. If Google wanted, they could move all of YouTube over to WebM, which would force Apple into supporting it (both for Safari and for its iPhone OS’s mobile Safari). Google may or may not actually do that, but it’s not entirely unlikely–converting YouTube videos to WebM would constitute a de facto victory for the emerging standard.

So what does this mean for the consumer? Well, if Google’s advertisements are right, it means faster, better-quality Web video, and it means companies won’t have to pay royalty rights when they show videos in this format. It also might make for one big format all mobile software makers can get behind, which would help with the splintering in web video today.

Dan Nosowitz, the author of this post, can be followed on Twitter, corresponded with via email, and stalked in San Francisco (no link for that one–you’ll have to do the legwork yourself).

About the author

Dan Nosowitz is a freelance writer and editor who has written for Popular Science, The Awl, Gizmodo, Fast Company, BuzzFeed, and elsewhere. He holds an undergraduate degree from McGill University and currently lives in Brooklyn, because he has a beard and glasses and that's the law.