The latest from Microsoft: IE9 will support VP8, but only if you install the codec.

In its HTML5 support, IE9 will support playback of H.264 video as well as VP8 video when the user has installed a VP8 codec on Windows.

This is a less-than-ringing endorsement of VP8 when read in the context of the whole blog post:

Another Follow-up on HTML5 Video in IE9 [The Windows Blog]

Blogger Dean Hachamovitch goes on to talk about how great it is that H.264 has wide hardware support, how codecs can contain security risks, how sites should consider the difficulties of supporting multiple formats, how Microsoft has technical hurdles, and at some length about the dangers of intellectual property liability.

No mention is made in any of these points of VP8, or what it means to support a codec through a DirectShow filter rather than natively bundled in-box with IE9.

In short, the translation is: “Yes, we’ll support VP8 if you install it yourself. Did we mention how great H.264 is? And, hey, isn’t that a lawyer standing over you … right … now?”

Maybe Dean was trying to avoid over-promising. It’s clear from the “significant amount of support and suggestions” regarding Microsoft’s past H.264 commitment that the company is getting an earful about what people want from video support. But the only real commitment here is that IE9 is supporting VP8 via manually-installed DirectShow plug-in with its HTML5 implementation. The post says nothing positive about VP8 and a fair amount of implied negativity about performance, reliability, security, maturity, and patent liability.

That’s either a little fear, uncertainty, and doubt, or it’s just early days and Microsoft isn’t ready to commit to anything yet.

Remaining questions: did Google make ample efforts to reach out to Microsoft and Apple on VP8? Were they rebuked? And what will Apple’s response be? I don’t buy the conspiracy theories that Microsoft and Apple have resisted open video alternatives as part of some secret plan to restrict people to their platforms; I think they’re just protective and defensive on issues of technical and legal doubt. But Apple’s response here will be critical.

Having been enthusiastic before, here’s my bet. (Hey, I’m not a blogger if I don’t stick my neck out and make the occasional prediction.) I believe Apple will stick to its guns, citing quality and patent concerns, and say it continues to choose H.264. If Microsoft’s response is to say “yes, we support DirectShow filters,” safe money is that that translates to Apple saying “H.264 or the highway,” particularly given their previous statements. I very much hope I’m wrong.

Oh, yeah, further evidence: John “Apple mind meld” Gruber appears not to like it, pulling the most negative portions of the x264 rant out of context and then poking fun at Mozilla. (Ha, those losers. Them and their constant desire for open standards.)

Updated – via comments. As I said, I was writing this hastily and half-asleep with jetlag yesterday, but in part because I wanted to get a conversation going and see what others think. One reader thinks that indeed only VP8 may get used for the video tag, not other DirectShow filters. And in fairness, VP8 is the first real rival to H.264 for use in the video tag, even if other installed codecs were supported. So this is still a big step forward for Microsoft from saying they’ll only support H.264 and not VP8. I’m very curious to know how IE9 will handle a VP8-encoded video if H.264 isn’t available and VP8 isn’t installed. (Perhaps a helpful link to download the codec, or at least a sensible error?)

I’m still holding out hope that Apple will do something similar. At the very least, Apple has no real significant investment in H.264 per se, not in the way they do WebKit or Cocoa. (Yes, they’re a patent pool member — but that turns out not to mean a whole lot, as they still pay for the privilege; their own patent nets less than the cost of licensing the codec. And it doesn’t mean they’re strategically invested in the same way.)