2011-01-12

Survey: Google drops native H.264 video support in Chrome

The news, as announced on Google’s Chromium blog:
  • Google will no longer support H.264 as an option for native HTML5 video.
  • They push WebM (VP8) and Theora as alternatives.
Analysis:
  • On mobile devices, H.264 rules, as it is the only way to play video on iOS and older Android devices. Android 2.3 Gingerbread supports WebM and Theora.
  • The proprietary Flash technology is still supported in Chrome.
  • A result of the discontinuation will be that Flash will become more common as a way for playing H.264. This may or may not be intentional. They have become closer allies with Adobe recently, though. If their plan really is to promote WebM, will it work?
  • Their stance is similar to Mozilla’s. Their Firefox browser has long only supported Theora, opposed H.264, and now supports WebM. Google adding support for Theora does give the decision credibility.
  • How much does Google own WebM, compared to MPEG-LA owning H.264?
  • Bottom line: Content providers will stick to H.264, as there will always be at least Apple’s devices that support only that standard. For browsers that do not support H.264 natively, Flash will be used.
Reactions:
  • Digg’s Kevin Rose on Twitter: “WTF of the day, Google Chrome drops H.264 video, in support of "open codec technologies".. yet in June they added Flash (not open)...
  • Daring Fireball has five questions for Google:
    1. In addition to supporting H.264, Chrome currently bundles an embedded version of Adobe’s closed source and proprietary Flash Player plugin. If H.264 support is being removed to “enable open innovation”, will Flash Player support be dropped as well? If not, why?
    2. Android currently supports H.264. Will this support be removed from Android? If not, why not?
    3. YouTube uses H.264 to encode video. Presumably, YouTube will be re-encoding its entire library using WebM. When this happens, will YouTube’s support for H.264 be dropped, to “enable open innovation”? If not, why not?
    4. Do you expect companies like Netflix, Amazon, Vimeo, Major League Baseball, and anyone else who currently streams H.264 to dual-encode all of their video using WebM? If not, how will Chrome users watch this content other than by resorting to Flash Player’s support for H.264 playback?
    5. Who is happy about this?
  • Engadget: We knew Google was rather fond of its WebM video standard, but we never expected a move like this: the company says it will drop support for the rival H.264 codec in its HTML5 video tag, and is justifying the move in the name of open standards somehow. Considering that H.264 is presently one of (if not the) most widely supported format out there, it sounds a little like Google shooting itself in the foot with a .357 round -- especially considering the MPEG-LA just made H.264 royalty-free as long as it's freely distributed just a few months ago. If that's the case, Chrome users will have to download a H.264 plug-in to play most web video that's not bundled up in Flash... which isn't exactly an open format itself. Or hey, perhaps everyone will magically switch to Chrome, video providers will kowtow, unicorns will gaily prance, and WebM will dominate from now on. 
  • Ed Burnette: On paper, Google is taking a principled stand in favor of open technologies. But they’re not really. First, WebM is not truly an open technology because it almost certainly uses patents owned by MPEG-LA or its members. Right now, the patent holders are ignoring it because it’s too small to bother with. We’ve seen this tactic many times before (for example, NTP vs. RIM): bide your time until a lot of people are using the infringing software and then hit it with a massive lawsuit for maximum profit. WebM is its own patent trap, and Google refuses to indemnify users against possible claims further down the road. If they were certain it was IP-clean then why hesitate to provide that protection? Clearly they don’t want that unknown, possibly large liability on their balance sheet. [via Daring Fireball]

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