i for one welcome our new google video overlords

Google had been notably quiet since acquiring video codec developer On2 Technologies, but today it revealed what it’s been up to: On2’s VP8 codec is now open-source, with a Theora-style irrevocable royalty-free grant for anyone to use the patents that Google now owns that cover it. Google’s calling the initiative WebM, which combines the VP8 video with Vorbis audio in a Matroska container.

The software’s a bit rough right now, but it really does work. Google has already started re-encoding Youtube’s videos, and after grabbing a WebM-enabled Firefox nightly build (the WebM site has to Firefox, Chrome, and Opera builds, and instructions for Youtube) I was able to check out the joys of HTML5 Youtube for the first time. As for encoding, there’s a reference encoder and a set of patches for FFmpeg; using the latter, I was able to build a WebM-enabled FFmpeg, encode a video, and play it back within Firefox.

Maybe Google’s just doing this as a lever against H.264 — MPEG LA might be less likely to go jacking up its prices if there’s a serious competitor in the market — but I get the impression it they really want to see WebM take off. There’s a big emphasis on hardware support, with simultaneous announcements from TI, Broadcom, Qualcomm, ARM, AMD, NVIDIA, and others, and Google will of course be bringing support to Android. With Adobe pledging to support it in Flash, giving support for IE and Safari, WebM is going to work just about everywhere apart from iPhone OS.

What remains to be seen is whether or not there are potential patent challenges here, from MPEG LA or other parties. Google obviously doesn’t think so, and it has a long list of partners that also seem willing to take that bet, so time will tell if MPEG LA makes good on its threats.

testing ubuntu lucid

Ubuntu 10.04, aka Lucid Lynx, is just a couple of days away, so I’ve been testing it on my laptop to see just how it’s coming along. I rely too much on both my laptop and my desktop to mess with new OSs before they’ve been released (or even just after they’ve been released), but I do keep a little 4GB partition spare on my laptop, so that I can install and test new releases without messing up my primary install.

So far, it’s looking really good. The new visual theme is great to look at, and while it still insists on moving the close/minimise/maximise widgets in window title bars, it at least puts the close button in most accessible place, in the far left. It also has “teh snappy” — Firefox 3.6 on 10.04 snaps tabs around just as quickly as Chrome did on 9.10. I’m not sure what’s going on here, but I suspect it’s an Intel video driver update at play.

In terms of music-making, 10.04 gets two big improvements: JACK is now in the “main” repository, which means that a bunch of apps that didn’t ship with JACK support in earlier versions now can (and do), and LV2 support is much more widespread, with major apps like Ardour supporting LV2 out-of-the-box, and more LV2 plug-ins (such as the Invada pack) available as standard packages. The JACK package now automatically sets itself up to get realtime priority access, removing a manual configuration step that’s often a stumbling block for users new to Linux audio.

living in the future

I spend a lot of time talking to Americans on the Internet, and they’re always reminding me that, due to the timezone difference, I live in the future compared to them. Today, though, I had a moment that reminded me that all of us really are living in the future.

It was simple enough, really — I was sitting on IRC, and someone pasted a URL in to channel, but instead of linking to some lewd image from 4chan, it was a live stream of the recording session he had in progress in his home studio. Streaming audio isn’t exactly a new thing — Internet radio and live online concerts date back to the days of RealPlayer and dialup — but there was just something fascinating about being able to listen in on someone else’s bedroom studio as they put a track together, with everyone on channel listening and giving feedback, and even recording and emailing across their own snippets of audio.

The best part of it all is that the technology isn’t that hard to get running. I installed Icecast on my virtual server, and DarkIce on my desktop at home, and before too long I had a live stream of my Ardour session up-and-running. DarkIce runs as a JACK client, so it can take its input from anywhere in your JACK signal path, and it can encode to Ogg Vorbis, which is supported natively in Firefox 3.5.


Songbird is an interesting creation — the result of cross-breeding an iTunes-style music player with a modern web browser. It’s based on the Mozilla XULRunner platform (you can essentially read that as “it’s based on Firefox”), and that’s probably partly responsible for its lust for resources (while running, it likes to use ~30% of one CPU on my laptop), but you’d be surprised just how useful it can be to have the power of a web browser in your music player.

There’s perhaps no better example than the mashTape extension. It appears as a bar along the bottom of the Songbird window, and when you play a track, it automatically pulls in related information from all over the web: artist info and a discography from last.fm and Wikipedia, photos from Flickr, videos from YouTube, reviews from Amazon… you get the idea. The LyricMaster extension pulls in lyrics in much the same way.

The other really neat example, which I only just discovered, is website streaming. Just like in Firefox, you can hit Ctrl-T in Songbird to open a browser tab, and while I wouldn’t use it for general browsing, it’s very handy if you have a page that’s full of links to MP3s. When you open such a page, Songbird detects the links and lists them in a playlist panel at the bottom of the window, where you can play them using the standard Songbird controls, or download them to your library with a click. It even fetches the tags from the files in the background, so while it only lists filenames at first, it soon fills in the full details.

As you’d expect, Songbird also has quite complete last.fm support — it’ll scrobble your tracks for you, and also give you access to your streaming radio. If you’re a music junkie, and you’re not wedded to your current player, Songbird is definitely worth a look.