Google to eject H.264 video from Chrome browser
Finding a more open, mobile-friendly replacement for Flash video on the Web was never going to be easy. But it's looking even more difficult after Google's surprise announcement yesterday that it will yank support for the most widely used Flash replacement from its Chrome browser.
The Mountain View, Calif., company broke the news on a developer-oriented blog -- not the more obvious Chrome blog, which itself adds to the weirdness of this decision. Wrote product manager Mike Jazayeri:
We expect even more rapid innovation in the web media platform in the coming year and are focusing our investments in those technologies that are developed and licensed based on open web principles. .... Specifically, we are supporting the WebM (VP8) and Theora video codecs, and will consider adding support for other high-quality open codecs in the future. Though H.264 plays an important role in video, as our goal is to enable open innovation, support for the codec will be removed and our resources directed towards completely open codec technologies.
A few words of explanation before the abbreviations get too dense in this post. Right now, most video on the Web comes in Adobe's Flash format, which doesn't work on many mobile devices (Apple has ruled it off-limits on the iPhone and the iPad) and has performance, maintenance and security issues on computers.
The most viable replacement for Flash is a file format called H.264, which modern browsers can play without any extra software plug-ins like Flash and also works well in mobile devices. Apple has anointed this format as its Flash replacement, and so has Microsoft.
But Mozilla, the developers of the Firefox browser, don't like H.264 because it carries licensing costs for some Web uses and isn't an open-source component, unlike Firefox itself.
Google inserted itself into this debate in May when it proposed a different Flash successor, an open-source, royalty-free format called WebM. (WebM might still be vulnerable to patent-infringement claims that could make it less than free to use, but you could say the same about virtually any Web technology.) Firefox and Chrome, along with the Opera browser, quickly moved to support it, but until yesterday's news Chrome had also supported H.264 equally.
Now Google seems to think that Web developers will follow its lead, which seems a bit ambitious given that Chrome has only just crept up to 10 percent of the market.
Fortunately Chrome users won't be shut out of Web video when Google yanks H.264 support--they'll just wind up viewing it in Adobe's Flash plug-in, which Google itself bundles in Chrome. Yes, even though Flash itself is not "completely open."
You have to wonder whether Google has thought through this exercise in ideological purity -- especially if you note, as tech blogger John Gruber did yesterday, that Google's own Android and YouTube themselves support H.264. ZDNet's Adrian Kingsley-Hughes had a different description for this change of course: "Google prepares to ruin Chrome browser."
What's your forecast for video viewing in Chrome? Do you have a preference for what replaces Flash, or are you sick of this whose-side-are-you-on standards standoff?
1/12, 4:16 p.m. The debate about this has been continuing around the Web. Two links worth reading: Harvard research fellow Ben Adida views Google's decision as a pragmatic bet on making the Web more open (as I've noted before, one reason the Web has succeeded so well is its unpatented, royalty-free status), while Mozilla's Asa Dotzler advances a more market-oriented argument by pointing out that Chrome, Firefox and Opera add up to about 40 percent of the Web audience. Both posts have a subtlety lacking in Google's notice, which Microsoft's Tim Sneath effectively parodied with a mock announcement that the United States would be standardizing on the more open language of Esperanto.
1/13, 9:30 a.m. Yet another perspective worth a look: A lengthy critique of Google's move by Ars Technica's Peter Bright notes that H.264 is a de facto standard off the Web, even more so than on it, and suggests that the only winner here is the Flash plug-in.
1/14, 4:38 p.m. Somebody at Google noticed that its earlier posting has not been terribly persuasive. The Chromium blog now features a longer post by Jazayeri. He portrays WebM as the only sensible alternative for a "baseline codec" (that phrase occurs five times) for HTML5 video, given that H.264's licensing requirements and potential cost down the line render it unpalatable to Firefox and Opera's developers and hazardous to "the next great video startup and those in emerging markets."
I get the logic of having a fully free and open video format as a lowest-common-denominator standard. But at the same time, H.264 isn't going away--and as previously noted, Google has no problem supporting other closed, proprietary standards. In that context, Google's prior course of action made much more sense. I don't see how its new stance will accomplish anything (i.e., end the need for the Flash plug-in) unless it somehow persuades Apple and Microsoft to add WebM support to their own browsers. Do you have any confidence that will happen?
| January 12, 2011; 11:05 AM ET
Categories: Standards, The Web, Video
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