I read something in the past few months which noted that, in this day and age, the ultimate phase of any tech startup’s business plan is to be purchased by Google. Viewed through that lens, On2 is about to live the dream, even though they existed years before Google, years before most people even knew what a search engine was.
So Google has announced its intention to purchase On2. Wow, it feels like the end of an era. It seems like I’ve had some relationship with On2 for the entire 9 years I’ve been into multimedia hacking. Something that got lost in yesterday’s coverage and commentary was that On2 started life as the Duck Corporation, also a codec company. During this period, they largely focused on gaming applications. But I’m pretty sure that RAD Game Tools kicked them out of that market with their Smacker and Bink technologies. However, files encoded with the Duck’s multimedia codecs were among the first I studied back around 2000-2001. So that always makes me sentimental.
Somewhere along the line, they transformed into On2 and created VP3. Near the end of 2001, On2 announced they would release VP3 as open source (they were working on VP5 around this time), hoping that some nebulous open source community would make something useful out of it. I’ll have you know that I was that open source community for quite awhile. I delved into their code and wrote the first documentation about the codec bitstream and decoding process which would later serve as the foundation of the formal Theora specification. Then I wrote an independent implementation for FFmpeg.
And I never judged the codec either.
Ah, On2. People always worry that I’m going to get sued to death for writing this blog, but On2 remains the only company that has ever leveled any kind of legal threat against me. But I ain’t mad at ya. Later that same year, I went to work for Adobe where I gained official access to the very algorithm I was trying to reverse engineer. Strange how things work out.
And now I work on the Adobe Flash Player, arguably the single biggest use case for any technology that has ever come out of On2. At least, so far. What does Google want with On2? You’re asking the wrong person. My company’s official answer is to contact On2 or Google.
There has been no shortage of speculation on Google’s motives, most of it misinformed at best, outright silly at worst. Dan Rayburn has a fantastic “day after” piece debunking myths about the deal: Debunking Myths, Questioning VP8’s Quality. His piece, however, does not address the idea floating around that Google will open source all of On2’s technologies. That’s certainly in keeping with the idealistic Google image of a promoter of free and open technologies, even if it would cause a lot of extra work for FFmpeg developers and multimedia historians alike. But seriously, take a look at the list of companies Google has acquired. Can you pick out any proprietary, closed source technologies they have purchased and subsequently released under an open source license? I don’t recognize Google’s history of doing this. Quite the contrary, it seems that when they buy closed source programs they keep them closed, like Picasa, and in cases like SketchUp, they even charge for upgraded versions.
My colleague Dark Shikari has some choice words to say on this situation. He remains extremely sceptical of any literature On2 has published regarding their codecs’ performance. Remember also the nonsense that circulated a few months ago regarding specious comparisons claiming that Theora is better than H.264 (more accurately stated: Theora can be tweaked enough to encode arguably better video than what YouTube’s H.264 encoder can generate in its default, lowest quality mode; but that entire thesis usually gets distilled into simpler, less accurate headlines). Finally, I have read some speculation that Google might want On2 not for any specific multimedia-related intellectual property, but for their talent pool.
To tie together all of the items in the previous paragraph: It’s possible that Google needs the expertise in cooking codec comparisons to keep the Theora faithful at bay.
For those keeping track, this is On2’s codec scorecard as of this writing:
|TrueMotion 1||Open source|
|TrueMotion 2||Open source|
|VP3||Open source, foundation for Theora|
If you have ever wondered what happened to VP1 and VP2, you may assume that TrueMotion 1 and 2 filled those positions.
|DK4 ADPCM||Open source|
|DK3 ADPCM||Open source|
|Audio For Video codec||Unknown|
It still annoys me that I reverse engineered DK4 and DK3 from binary only to later discover that they were already open sourced along with TrueMotion 1 and 2, and VP3.