Rob Pegoraro: Google touts WebM, a single, open standard for Web video

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By Rob Pegoraro
Thursday, May 20, 2010

SAN FRANCISCO

Google wants to fix two sticking points with the Web of today: watching video without having to fuss with extra browser plug-ins and finding Web-based applications that are good enough to bump off the disk-based programs you're used to.

The company opened its Google I/O developers conference here by launching two initiatives aimed at those problems. One would replace the current mishmash of online video formats, most tied down with proprietary licenses and royalty requirements, with a single, open-source format. The other would make finding and adding (and, if necessary, buying) Web applications as easy as grabbing a new smartphone program off Google's Android Market service.

Google's video plans constitute the biggest headlines from Wednesday's session. The online giant announced that, with together with dozens of other vendors, it is donating its VP8 video format and bundling that into a broader multimedia format called WebM. Both formats will be available under an open-source, royalty-free license. Google will build the standard into its Chrome browser, and the developers of the competing Mozilla Firefox and Opera browsers will do the same in upcoming releases.

Equally important, Adobe Systems -- which makes the Flash plugin that WebM could make unnecessary -- announced that it would add support for WebM to its software. If that works out, it will neatly solve the major hang-up to this format's adoption: the votes that the other two major browser vendors, Microsoft and Apple, have cast for a more-established, widely used and not-free standard called h.264. Because just about every user of Microsoft's Internet Explorer (still the most widely used browser) and Apple's Safari already have the Flash plug-in installed, Web authors could count on them being able to view a WebM clip.

That would be superior to the current state of affairs, in which every Web user has to install Flash and deal with its steady stream of bug fixes and security patches. It would also make Web video more like the rest of the Web: an open environment in which nobody has to pay or sign a license to create content.

(So Google's self-interest is clear: A Web with pain-free video would probably cause more people to spend more time online, which in turn would only help Google's ad business.)

Google's Chrome Store, a Web equivalent of the Android Market or Apple's App Store, could also keep more people online longer. This component of Google's Chrome browser, due this year, is supposed to be a next step in the way browser-based applications, such as Google's Gmail or Intuit's Mint, have taken over tasks once confined to programs that came on a disk. Instead of having to click around different sites to see whether one Web application or another is worth a bookmark, you could simply see the ratings of users and click one link to get the program.

In a variety of demonstrations, presenters from Google and other companies talked about the kinds of new applications that could be provided through the Chrome Store. A representative from Sports Illustrated showed off a Web version of the magazine that actually looked like the magazine -- complete with the right fonts and layout -- but embedded with Web features such as video clips, links to share stories and live updates of the sports chatter taking place on Google's Buzz service. And (print publishers take note) the ads were far richer and more interactive than the banner ads and text boxes that populate most newspaper and magazine Web sites.

You won't have to run Chrome to use the apps. In theory, they should be just a link away in any browser that supports modern Web standards. That suggests they could also run on Apple's iPad, which has attracted an inordinate amount of traditional-media attention for its potential as a new publishing market.

Looks like the competition between Apple and Google in the smartphone and (probably soon) tablet-computer markets will get much more interesting. But for either of these initiatives to get rolling, they'll first need work by developers, which is hard, and cooperation among competing companies, which is harder.

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