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Posted at 11:05 AM ET, 01/12/2011

Google to eject H.264 video from Chrome browser

By Rob Pegoraro

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?

By Rob Pegoraro  | January 12, 2011; 11:05 AM ET
Categories:  Standards, The Web, Video  
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Why would 99% of the world care if their browser is "open"?

I want something that is fast and bug-free.

"Open" does me no good at all.
(I bet most people don't even know what that means.)

Posted by: nospamok | January 12, 2011 11:49 AM | Report abuse

/sigh, I'm tired of these companies trying to manipulate markets to whatever their nerds get obstinate about. I guess I'll be switching back to Safari on my Mac. At least Apple remains consistent in their tyrannical decisions. I would not be surprised if Google reverses this decision. Too many mobile devices support H.264 and websites are into it just as heavily as they are into flash. Also, browser makers seem to think that the desktop browsing market is still where its at. Its not. I use my iPad for browsing most of the time so desktop browsing isn't as important to me as it used to be so I'm not really married to Chrome even though I like it. The future is mobile devices, entertainment systems and whatever they support. They should know this since they created Android.

Posted by: radtranceman | January 12, 2011 12:45 PM | Report abuse

The world does not care. Which makes this another misguided debate like which OS is on your smart phone. I have an iPhone not because I love the OS but because Apple does a great job on the UI.

I work in standards development and I believe in standards to achieve interoperability. However, the Web moves so fast and is such a hot bed of innovation that standards are always put in place well after the horse has left the barn. So they have the opposite effect of their intended goal and result in disruption rather than stability.

For me the important thing is that a browser be stable, fast and handle whatever format the Internet throws at it. In that order.

Posted by: boomer5 | January 12, 2011 12:54 PM | Report abuse

At least Apple remains consistent in their tyrannical decisions.
Don't they now allow you to export apps from flash/air, once again?

Posted by: RandomAnon | January 12, 2011 1:11 PM | Report abuse

I'm not surprised by the major points missed by this piece.

1) H.264 playback is supported in Flash. In other words there is not just a line between H.264 or Flash format. Content in H.264 can be played in a Flash control

2) Google announced WebM months a go as a compromise for Opera and Firefox, who both want a royalty free codec.

3) A major support of WebM is Adobe. They are adding support for their creation and playback tools (Flash) so it can be used.

This is not a situation where Google is trying to push a standard away. They are supporting choice. Flash, WebM, or both.

Posted by: randomguy3 | January 12, 2011 2:13 PM | Report abuse

I'm not surprised by the major points missed by this piece.

1) H.264 playback is supported in Flash. In other words there is not just a line between H.264 or the Flash format. Content in H.264 can be played in a Flash control.

2) Google announced WebM months a go as a compromise for Opera and Firefox, who both want a royalty free codec. This now will make 3 major browser makers supporting a new royalty fer

3) A major support of WebM is Adobe. They are adding support for their creation and playback tools (Flash) so it can be used.

This is not a situation where Google is trying to push a standard away. They are supporting choice. Flash, WebM, or both. Ones a proprietary option, the other a open option.

Posted by: randomguy3 | January 12, 2011 2:14 PM | Report abuse

This is insanity. Google's motto of "Don't be evil" becomes less and less important to them as they make a bone-headed decision like this.

Fine, support VP8. They said they were going to do this a long time ago. But dropping h.264 is nuts.

As for accuracy in this story, the statement that h.264 is a replacement for Flash is wrong. Flash is for animation and video streaming. Video streaming is the main point of h.264, but animation is not. The author is mistaking HTML 5 for h.264. They are not anywhere near the same thing.

Still, the main point here is Google is doing this to hurt Apple, Microsoft and others. There is billions of dollars worth of hardware out there that supports h.264, which is the best standard for streaming video if you want quality. (Flash is best for low bandwidth video streaming.)

Google has to be up to some nefarious purpose with this move, because there is no legitimate reason to do this. VP8 and Theora are undoubtedly copyright-compromised standards. The group controlling h.264 announced in 2010 that it will be free forever for those who are distributing video on the Internet freely. If you're a big movie company like Fox or Disney, you will have to pay a license to stream via h.264. The rest of us have been promised it will remain free for as long as its a viable standard.

And of course, WebM (VP8) is controlled by Google. They have the power to do great damage if they get people stuck with that standard.

Do not trust them. They are up to no good with this move. I was actually thinking about giving Chrome a try. Now, there's zero chance that will happen on my computer, or the computers where I work.

Posted by: leicaman | January 12, 2011 4:23 PM | Report abuse

First off, if Adobe filed a restraint of trade lawsuit against Apple I'd be a happy camper.

That said, well h.264 needs to go. I'd prefer an apathy related approach though. When companies pull program functionality it's time to find alternatives.

Posted by: Nymous | January 12, 2011 10:05 PM | Report abuse

Some of you commenters need to work on your reading comprehension.

> H.264 playback is supported in Flash.

So what? The point is that Flash is problematic for a number of reasons so another approach is required. The article is about native H.264 support.

> As for accuracy in this story, the statement that h.264 is a replacement for Flash is wrong.

He said "replacement for Flash video" in the first sentence and never discusses the other uses for Flash anywhere else in the article.

Posted by: slar | January 12, 2011 10:19 PM | Report abuse

I'm dropping CHROME as of now.
What else is it going to try down the road.

Posted by: ianchong | January 12, 2011 10:44 PM | Report abuse

All of our marketing video collateral is in h.264, as it looks great.

It's supported by Firefox, IE, and Safari. Not Chrome.

Easy decision. Chrome is off our list of supported browsers, and Chrome users will get the "Sorry, you need a real browser" message.

Nice going, Google.

Posted by: getjiggly2 | January 13, 2011 1:23 AM | Report abuse

Posted by: nospamok

"I want something that is fast and bug-free."

Then you should be applauding Google's efforts to remove the SLOW and BUGGY flash player from your browsing experience.

Posted by: frantaylor | January 13, 2011 4:16 AM | Report abuse

I don't think people understand. h.264 is a subset of the MPEG4 standard(a open, but not free standard). Google is making a stance by not supporting something you have to pay for. In some countries(ie Europe) you can legally use codecs such as mp3, h.264 for personal use free of charge. In some countries(USA and others), the powers that be demand some form of pay for using the format. MPEG1(ancient) is the only free to use universal standard. MPEG2 is whats used in DVDs. it is a pay standard which is why Windows XP never supported it out of the box(you had to have PowerDVD or the equivalent) and it took until Vista for microsoft to include it as part of the licensing fee. Same case here. Google was paying license fees for Chrome users to have h.264 support. It's sister project, Chromium(the open-source project behind chrome) had no such support for the reason above. Opera and Mozilla dont want to pay anyone for the codec which is why google bought the VP8 codec and relicensed it worldwide royalty-free. It's also why theora was originally proposed(Theora is a product of the OGG project that seeks to make codecs comparable to modern codecs just without the licensing headaches). Google is just trying to support open, royalty-free standards.

Posted by: EngineeringThePlanet | January 13, 2011 4:31 AM | Report abuse

Nu, la angla ne vere estas ferma, sed Esperanto estas pli facila por lerni cxar gxi estas pli regula. Mi gratulas la homojn de Usono pri la decido. ;)

Esperantisto en Usono

Posted by: zoomxoom | January 13, 2011 8:24 AM | Report abuse

Given that H.264 playback is supported in Flash and that even in the future Chrome/Chromium will support both Flash and WebM (VP8), end users are hardly going to note any difference when this measure is implemented «in a couple of months». I suggest that *this* is perhaps the main reason that Google chose to release the information on the developer-oriented Chromium blog rather than on the Chrome blog ; in my opinion nothing «weird» about that decision at all....


Posted by: mhenriday | January 13, 2011 10:36 AM | Report abuse

Is it or isn't it what we call "An American Thing To Do?"

Posted by: SOCIETY1 | January 13, 2011 12:58 PM | Report abuse

I'll tell you what I care about:
I'm sick of Flash and i want it to be gone. I'm tired of all the ads on the post website taking time to load and infringing on my right to navigate and read in relative peace. The fact of the matter is, YOU CAN"T TURN FLASH OFF. It takes the power out of the users hands. If you change the settings to not accept anything from sights you don't even navigate to, you can't view any content. There is something inherently wrong with that. There absolutely needs to be another option that allows the user to reject Flash without compromising their internet experience. Flash just backs ad companies and supports the monitoring of people's web habits, at the expense of the user.
That's the way i see it; if that's wrong, please fill me in.

Posted by: oo7 | January 13, 2011 2:04 PM | Report abuse

What about QuickTime? The viewer is free

Posted by: bata4689 | January 13, 2011 3:59 PM | Report abuse

What about QuickTime? The viewer is free

Posted by: bata4689 | January 13, 2011 4:00 PM | Report abuse

Does Foxit Reader figure in this? Does it offer a counterpart to Flash?

Posted by: ejmurphy414 | January 13, 2011 5:45 PM | Report abuse

At work I use commercial software on the Windows platform and at home I'm a Linux user. I like the performance I've had from Chrome on both platforms. The choice of browser is always about that which works best. For now I've been using Firefox the most. If Google removes enough function from Chrome then nobody will use it. Can't there be a plug-in for this regardless of how "Pure" h.264 is? The whole question is odd indeed. Open source is fine but to kill function for "Open Purity" is stupidity at it's worst.

Posted by: rmtaylor2 | January 13, 2011 10:29 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for all the comments on this fairly wonky topic.

@randomguy3: But do you like the Flash plug-in? Many people--myself included--aren't too fond of it, so a solution that requires it to stick around doesn't improve matters.

@leicaman: Fair point about Flash and animation, although it's outside this issue. I agree completely about replacing Flash animations and navigational tools with HTML5... except when it comes to restaurant home pages, where I don't want Flash intros to be replaced with anything.

@zoomxoom: Clever reply :) The translator site I tried (Google Translate doesn't support Esperanto, oddly enough) thinks you wrote something like "Well, it's not true that English is closed, but that Esperanto is easier to learn and more regular. I congratulate the people of the United States on the decision." Right?

@bata4689: QuickTime is a non-starter. It's a proprietary app that only runs in OS X and Windows, it's a pretty large install and it's needed plenty of its own security updates.

@ejmurphy414: Nope, Foxit Reader only handles PDF files (which Chrome now displays using a built-in PDF reader).

- RP

Posted by: Rob Pegoraro | January 14, 2011 2:19 PM | Report abuse

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