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H.265 May Never Happen

There was a small amount of news last month that didn't get a lot of coverage. It was reported that Google and MPEG LA reached an agreement over VP8. This agreement is part of a process that could mean huge impacts to online video.

H.264 is the dominant codec for online video applications today. Manufacturers of video cameras, video conferencing solutions, mobile phones, and even DVDs license H.264 from MPEG LA.

Several years ago, Google offered the Internet a free alternative known as VP8, using technology it acquired from On2. VP8, through Google's WebM specification, is an open-sourced free alternative to H.264. The belief was that without licensing restrictions, video would explode.

VP8 has not been widely adopted. It is generally considered competitive to H.264 in terms of performance, and it is free. Google uses it, and it's part of Google's WebRTC specification, but most developers ignore it for fear of litigation; MPEG LA had expressed concern that VP8 infringed its intellectual property. The result of this new agreement is that MPEG LA has agreed not to challenge the legality of VP8.

Details about the agreement were not disclosed. Presumably, Google offered an attractive settlement. Since MPEG LA's claims were the main barrier to adoption, VP8 is now poised to take-off. For the first time, the Internet has a free codec, and even better stewardship of adoption thanks to Google's influence--via not just WebRTC, but also YouTube, Chrome, and Android. VP8 just became heir apparent to H.264, upsetting the order because H.265 had been cast to be the next big video codec.

There is one final hurdle for VP8 to clear, though it's questionable how high it really is.

Nokia (yes, Nokia) is claiming VP8 infringes its rights. According to CNET, Google's arrangement with MPEG LA resolved IP claims with 11 patent holders, rather than the 12 organizations that claimed VP8 infringements. That twelfth company is Nokia, which claims it won't license its patents under any terms. It submitted a list of 64 patents to the IETF in an attempt to thwart VP8 from becoming approved as an Internet standard. Nokia's explanation was it favors open efforts for standardization.

Company spokesman Mark Durrant said in an email commenting on Nokia's IETF filings that, "We are now witnessing one company attempting to force the adoption of its proprietary technology, which offers no advantages over existing, widely deployed standards such as H.264 and infringes Nokia's intellectual property."

It's unclear how big an obstacle Nokia poses. Google seemed to view the multi-year MPEG LA challenge as just one of several roadblocks on this journey. The firm seems committed to making video more pervasive and free, and has spent a tidy sum in doing so. Given these facts, I doubt they are very concerned about this latest Nokia move, and likely assume that it too will pass. So, while I know the fat lady hasn't sung, I see VP8 as being more likely than H.265 to become the next big codec.

Can Nokia stop VP8? Patent defense is tricky--and expensive. Nokia's list of 64 patents isn't as impressive as it sounds. According to a post on Groklaw, "The list looks as long and scary as it could possibly look.... But when you break the Nokia list down, country by country and then by patent, it's not so impressive after all. As it turns out, there are just a few patents repeated over and over."

Also, Nokia is going to find it very hard to go after violators. VP8 is in Android, and as with other Android/Google patent claims, Nokia may have to file suits against each hardware maker separately. Patents are expensive to protect, and Nokia doesn't have the deep pockets it once did. Plus, patent claims are getting harder. Momentum is building against software patents--even in patent-friendly jurisdictions.

When VP8 breaks loose, and it will, it will have the opportunity to blossom. Hardware makers will accelerate it, and an SVC implementation will undoubtedly follow. Then comes WebRTC with its potentially huge base of users and application developers. Try getting that crowd excited about royalties for a CPU-intensive H.265 codec. Maybe H.265 will get its turn after VP8, but by that point, it will need to contend with VP9.

Dave Michels is Contributing Editor and Analyst at TalkingPointz.

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