YouTube switches all uploads to the WebM codec

Google has given its WebM video format, born from the VP8 codec developed by On Technologies, a boost this week with the announcement that all videos uploaded to its YouTube service will be transcoded to WebM by default.

The codec takes over from H.264 as the company's format of choice, with all videos uploaded from this point on being converted to WebM for storage and streaming. Existing videos, the company has confirmed, will be slowly converted from their existing formats to WebM - with around 30 per cent of the company's total video archive already converted, accounting for an estimated 99 per cent of all traffic to the site.

While Google's opinion of WebM, a homebrew format for which it need not pay licensing fees, is naturally biased, the open-source nature of the codec does offer certain advantages. "WebM's openness allows anyone to improve the format and its integrations, resulting in a better experience for you in the long-term," explained Google's James Zem during the company's announcement. "As we work to transcode more videos into WebM, we hope to reduce the technical incompatibilities that prevent you from accessing video while improving the overall online video landscape."

The move from H.264 to WebM is an important one in Google's decision to develop an HTML5-based video streaming system - finally ridding itself of the reliance on Adobe's Flash technology which sees the site struggle to operate on some mobile devices and not work at all on Apple's popular iPad tablet and its smaller siblings. The open source nature of WebM means that browsers are free to implement the codec directly in their own software, removing the requirements for plugins and making an HTML5 player work across all platforms - providing Google can encourage developers to bother with such integration, of course.

The company has denied that it plans to completely ditch H.264 for WebM - in the short term, at least. "In keeping with our goal of making videos universally accessible, we will continue to support H.264 as an important codec for video on YouTube," Zem claimed - with content transcoded as required for clients that don't support the WebM codec yet.

The move to WebM as the default codec could help improve the quality of mobile video while boosting battery life, with hardware such as the RockChip RK2198 ARM-based system-on-chip design packing hardware acceleration for WebM that takes the pressure off the system CPU - and Google itself having released royalty-free plans for other companies to implement hardware acceleration for both playback and recording of WebM content.

While Google's WebM format still has a long way to go before it can be considered a universal standard, shifting YouTube to the format is a clever move on the advertising giant's part - meaning that users who want to ensure the highest possible quality for their YouTube videos will have to investigate recording in the format natively.