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.