Mozilla has officially added WebM video support to the nightly builds of Firefox. WebM video support will also be a part of Firefox 4, the next version of the popular browser which will be released later this year.
WebM is the new media format launched by Google, Mozilla and Opera at the Google I/O developer conference in May. WebM is a format for audio and video playback in web browsers, media players and hardware devices that anyone can freely implement. It’s seen as the primary competitor to H.264, which is currently the dominant format for video on the web. H.264 is supported by Flash, the iPhone and iPad, and by most browsers, but some are reluctant to support it because of commercial licensing requirements.
Experimental WebM-enabled builds of Firefox were first made available shortly after Google announced it was releasing the VP8 video codec — one of the central pieces of technology for WebM — under an open, royalty-free license. But WebM support is now officially part of the Firefox trunk, meaning native support will almost certainly be included in Firefox 4 when it’s released later this year.
The new WebM support in Firefox comes on the heels of Google’s decision to change the license governing the format. When the WebM Project was first launched last month, the code was released under a custom Google license. Google’s custom license contained clauses that seem to make it incompatible with the GPL, one of the most widely used software licenses in the open source community.
To help spread the adoption of WebM, Google has changed the WebM licensing to use the BSD license, which is compatible with almost every other open source license. The BSD license means that Mozilla can now include WebM’s VP8 codec in Firefox. This also makes it much easier for Mozilla to argue that VP8 should become the officially recommended codec in the HTML5 specification. The HTML5 spec currently doesn’t recommend any single codec for video or audio.
While the Firefox nightlies support WebM, they don’t support all of its features. And of course, these are nightly builds, so expect some bugs and crashes if you’re testing them. Still, if you’d like to test the new codec, head over to the Mozilla FTP site and grab a WebM-enabled nightly build. Then go to YouTube and make sure you’ve opted in to the HTML5 experiment on the site. YouTube is currently offering this experimental site as a way to watch videos using native HTML5 playback in the browser. Everyone else still sees Flash videos.
Once you’re ready to go, just append
&webm=1 to the end of your YouTube search URL to search for WebM videos. Here’s a link the WebM Coraline trailer shown above.
In our testing, WebM performed on par with H.264 on a MacBook Pro and on a Mac Pro running Windows 7, though it still heavily taxed our EeePC netbook. Of course, H.264 video fares no better on the netbook. If you were hoping for smooth, crisp HD HTML5 video on low-end machines, well, we’re here to destroy that hope. Maybe the performance will improve as the codec is further developed.
Still, WebM looks great and is significantly smoother than Flash, even on the netbook. While the Firefox nightly builds lack support for features like full-screen mode or the “buffered” attribute, the early release looks promising and the video quality is excellent.
If nightly builds aren’t your cup of tea, fear not — WebM support will be baked into the first Firefox 4 beta, due before the end of June.
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