Most people will have never heard of H.264, let alone understand why Google’s decision to no longer support it could fundamentally change the web for everyone. Whether it’s a change for better or worse is a hotly discussed topic in the geekosphere right now and my opinion is if Google gets its wicked way, then it will definitely be the worse for everyone concerned, whether they’ve heard of H.264 or not.
Briefly for those who don’t know, H.264 is a high compression, high quality video format (codec) developed by the MPEG LA consortium, which includes Microsoft and Apple among its licensors, but notably not Google, which instead bought then invested in an alternative format known as WebM/VP8. H.264 has been rapidly adopted, whilst WebM has not.
Until recently, if you wanted to present video content via the web you had very limited options, namely the Adobe Flash browser plugin. This was seen by everyone (except of course Adobe) as a bad thing, because it is an add-on piece of software owned by just one company and is a mostly closed format requiring licenses. Ideally, you shouldn’t need to add anything to a browser to view content you come across on the web. However, due to there being no other option, Flash quickly became the defacto standard for presenting video.
Given the increasing use of audio and video on the web, when the W3C drafted the HTML5 web standard (current at time of writing being HTML4.01), new <audio> and <video> elements were included that they hoped would be adopted by browser makers, doing away with the need for the Flash plugin altogether.
Firefox (Mozilla), Chrome (Google), Safari (Apple) and Opera all became early adopters of the new <audio> and <video> elements, well before the HTML5 standard is even close to being ratified. However, the list of supported formats between browsers has always been a problem, due to each following its own path. Mozilla and Opera chose to support a little known format called Ogg Theora, Google bought and developed WebM, whilst also supporting H.264 and Apple backed H.264 having already worked on and adopted it for Quicktime. Microsoft, late to the party as always, supports native playback of H.264 with Windows Phone 7 and Internet Explorer 9, currently in beta.
So it looked as though, in H.264 there might be a close to universally supported format that could be used with the new <video> element and be a real alternative to Flash. 3 of the top 5 browsers were already supporting it and as a result smartphones, tablets and laptops the world over could rejoice in longer battery life and smoother video playback at the highest quality!
But alas H.264 is not wholly license free, it’s owned and licensed by the MPEG-LA consortium. Apparently, WebM is not wholly open either, though it is significantly more open due to Google releasing its patents into the public domain and whilst there’s no licensing issues with Ogg Theora, it is the worst of the 3 touted formats. Interestingly, there seems to be no debate on which format is the best, because H.264 is clearly streets ahead in terms of quality vs compression. In fact, there are doubts over WebM infringing the patents held by MPEG-LA relating to the compression WebM uses to get anywhere close to H.264 quality. If WebM doesn’t infringe patents, why won’t Google indemnify users against future lawsuits?
So why is Google backing out now, when it picked H.264 as the format of choice for YouTube not that long ago and converted every video in its vast library to match?
Google cites openness, that H.264 is not wholly open and is therefore worried about future licensing issues and is dropping support as a result. Others argue the licensing is clear and that it’s a cynical move by Google to try and damage the H.264 formats adoption and more importantly for Google and its Android mobile operating system, damage iPhone’s and Windows Phone 7′s popularity.
Although Google is talking about its Chrome web browser when it says it’s dropping support for H.264, Google also owns YouTube. If it stops supporting H.264 there and that’s the next logical step, then a huge chunk of the web’s videos will suddenly no longer be playable on any Windows Phone 7, Apple TV, iPhone, iPad or iPod! That would be a huge advantage to Android.
So what’s likely to happen?
Many major companies have invested heavily in H.264, not just Microsoft and Apple. Lots of manufacturers have hardware support for the format in smartphones, televisions and dvd/media players, many video on demand services use it and it’s unlikely they’ll want to spend lots of money adding extra hardware or dual encode video content to support H.264 and WebM.
Since Android devices and the Chrome web browser both support Flash, I suspect these companies will continue to use H.264 for devices that support it and fallback to Flash as the delivery mechanism for those that don’t, which is exactly what they do, except now that means a lot more users will need to be served Flash content, slowing the adoption of HTML5 and prolonging the need for the Adobe Flash plugin.
If it weren’t for YouTube, I’d say Google has little chance of changing anything by way of their announcement, despite Chrome being increasingly popular as a web browser. But if it acts decisively and switches YouTube to support only WebM and Flash, it could really upset the Apple cart (pun intended) and lever lack of YouTube playback in iOS and Windows Phone 7 devices to seriously advantage its Android mobile operating system.
A ruthless and purely commercial decision that cynically uses openness as a veil to promote Android at the expense of Windows Phone 7 and Apple iOS. On that note, why is Flash natively supported in the next version of Chrome when it is the mother of all proprietary, mostly closed and licensed formats and the reason the <audio> and <video> elements were introduced in the first place? Hypocrisy anyone?
I’m not suggesting other companies wouldn’t do the same thing if they had the chance to gain a chunk of market share and damage their main opposition in the process. But this will also damage and fragment the web as a whole, the web Google claims to love so much, in order to promote their own agenda. Yes it’s a pity H.264 is not a completely free and open standard, but it took serious investment over several years from a host of companies to develop.
Whether this marks the death throws for WebM adoption, or represents a real challenge to become the dominant HTML5 video format, only time will tell.
Google’s mantra is “don’t be evil”, but I think you need increasingly darker rose tinted spectacles to believe that in recent times. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.