Google is preparing for war with Apple and Microsoft over the future of web video, and the rest of will be caught in the crossfire.
Earlier this week, Google quietly announced that it would be phasing out Chrome support for H.264, the video codec and standard supported by Adobe Flash, Blu-ray, Internet Explorer, Safari and others. Instead, it will be supporting WebM and Ogg Theora, which are supported by Mozilla and Opera.
What Google hoped would be a small footnote turned into a tidal wave of criticism. Google was chastised for turning its back on “open innovation” by dropping a more widely used codec for a lesser-used one. Compounded by the fact that Google is a strong supporter of Adobe and Flash, and it’s easy to see why the firestorm started in the first place.
Why Is Google Against H.264?
After several days of being slammed in the media, Google finally responded and wrote the post it should have written in the first place.
First, Google’s Mike Jazayeri clarified that Google Chrome would only stop supporting H.264 in HTML5, not in Flash or other forms of media. Then he dove into the problem surrounding the HTML5 <video> tag:
“As it stands, the organizations involved in defining the HTML video standard are at an impasse. There is no agreement on which video codec should be the baseline standard. Firefox and Opera support the open WebM and Ogg Theora codecs and will not support H.264 due to its licensing requirements; Safari and IE9 support H.264. With this status quo, all publishers and developers using the <video> tag will be forced to support multiple formats.”
Google has come to the conclusion that there will never be agreement on H.264, since it is proprietary technology owned by MPEG LA, a firm that forms and licenses patent pools. Thus the search giant decided to draw a line in the sand and double down on the WebM. WebM, for those of you who may not remember, is the open codec/standard for web video created by Google.
Unlike H.264, WebM/VP8′s patents have been released royalty-free. Apple and Microsoft are part of H.264′s patent pool, as are companies like Sony, Sharp, Cisco, LG Electronics, Hp, Toshiba and Dolby. Absent from the list: Mozilla and Google.
The tech titan also addressed the criticism that it should have selected H.264 as its baseline codec because of its wider adoption:
“To use and distribute H.264, browser and OS vendors, hardware manufacturers, and publishers who charge for content must pay significant royalties—with no guarantee the fees won’t increase in the future. To companies like Google, the license fees may not be material, but to the next great video startup and those in emerging markets these fees stifle innovation.”
Google also argued in its response that a community development process is superior to one where multiple parties have incentives to collect patent royalties.
Neither Side Will Budge
While Google may not have intended to start a war, it has essentially drawn the battle lines and made it clear that there will be no compromise. On the one hand, you have Google, Opera, Mozilla and and its WebM allies, which include WinAmp, Skype, AMD, Broadcom, Qualcomm, Logitech and Nvidia. On the other hand, you have the participants of the H.264 patent pool. There isn’t a single company that is part of both WebM and H.264.
The final paragraph of Google’s response may be the most telling thing in this whole affair, though:
“Bottom line, we are at an impasse in the evolution of HTML video. Having no baseline codec in the HTML specification is far from ideal. This is why we’re joining others in the community to invest in WebM and encouraging every browser vendor to adopt it for the emerging HTML video platform (the WebM Project team will soon release plugins that enable WebM support in Safari and IE9 via the HTML standard <video> tag). Our choice was to make a decision today and invest in open technology to move the platform forward, or to accept the status quo of a fragmented platform where the pace of innovation may be clouded by the interests of those collecting royalties. Seen in this light, we are choosing to bet on the open web and are confident this decision will spur innovation that benefits users and the industry.”
Google says that it hopes that the other browsers will adopt WebM, but it’s clear they already know that won’t happen. Why else would Google build Safari and IE 9 plugins to add WebM support into those browsers?
The inability for both sides to compromise will almost certainly stifle the growth of innovation surrounding HTML5 video. Why would anybody invest time and money into a technology that will only work in some browsers, when Flash is guaranteed to work in all browsers (except Mobile Safari)?
Unless both sides find a way to compromise, the future of web video will continue to be in Adobe’s hands. We doubt either side is going to budge anytime soon. The citizens of the web will end up being the losers of this affair.