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a blog by ken pardue

A New Twist in the HTML5 Video Saga

Late in the day, a considerable announcement was made on the part of Google that once again shifts the battle lines in the development of the HTML5 standard.  Google announced on their Chromium blog that over the next few months they will phase out support for the H.264 video codec and exclusively support WebM and Theora.  Although Chrome is a lesser player in the browser market with a fractional market share compared to Internet Explorer and Firefox, this move is sending ripples throughout the browser market.  HTML5 video is one of the more contentious parts of the HTML5 spec because of codec support.

In terms of browser support, this polarizes the market since Chrome previously supported both H.264 and WebM.  The lines are clearly drawn with Internet Explorer and Safari (including mobile variants) supporting H.264 (65% of the market), and Firefox, Chrome, and Opera supporting WebM (35% of the market).  Although Internet Explorer can support WebM, I won’t include it in the WebM group since additional software must be downloaded to enable it.  If that were a good reason, then 100% of the aforementioned browsers use additional software to playback H.264 and the whole debate is moot.

So what does this mean for the web, in terms of both desktop and mobile?  Not much for either, at the moment.  Chrome’s market share is still too insignificant for it to have widespread usage effect.  People have spent more than a year slamming and dismissing Firefox’s only-open-codecs position.  Mozilla took a lot of heat and lost some market share when they decided to only support Theora (and later WebM) and not H.264.  Mozilla’s Robert O’Callahan acknowledges this heat while writing on Google’s announcement, saying, “Incidentally, it’s also a good day for us at Mozilla: the pressure that was building on us to support H.264 should ease off considerably.”  It was one of the big reasons cited for people moving to Chrome en masse.  For the most part, developers served HTML5 H.264 to browsers that can handle it and Flash H.264 video to lowly Firefox users.  My guess is that Chrome will simply join Firefox in that category.  However,  the move is having tremendous psychological effect.  For the desktop where hardware acceleration isn’t as important, it makes WebM look to have more staying power.  Unfortunately for Google, it also makes the company look like more of  a target for the salivating lawyers at MPEG-LA.  Google hasn’t exactly had much luck lately in steering clear of patent lawsuits on the principal of virtue.  For the mobile market where battery life is key, it simply underscores the competition between Android and everyone else.  The iPhone supports H.264 natively, as do virtually all other smart phones from Microsoft, RIM, etc.  H.264 has simply been around much longer and has a well established market from professional to consumer video, from production to consumption.  Android, assuming Google will also be dropping H.264 from it, will exclusively support WebM/Theora.  I truly support the idealism behind WebM.  It makes a lot of sense that something central to the evolution of the Web not be laden with patents upon which royalties are paid.  Openness has always been key to the Web, and it should remain so.  With luck, we’ll see legal threats dissolve and hardware acceleration come onto the market, as we’re already starting to see, and the barrier to entry will be lowered.

I’m not sure what Google intended, but in the few hours that the article has been available there have been more than 400 comments, nearly all of them negative.  It seems that the only people happy about the decision are those that are on Mozilla’s or Opera’s payroll.  It’s pretty clear that, considering the timing–the same day as Verizon’s announcement that they’re getting the iPhone–doing this now is a power play for Google as it faces increased competition against Android in the market.  Its a bit of corporate positioning to promote its Android platform and its own codec by removing support for the competing market de-facto standard, all under the guise of openness.  All in all, a very Microsoft-like move… especially considering the hypocrisy that they’ll continue to bundle Adobe’s Flash (a sluggish, proprietary symbol of the ‘old web’ if ever there was one) with the Chrome browser.  The most humorous of the comments are those users declaring that they’re not going to use Chrome any  longer and are moving back to Firefox (who never supported H.264 anyway).

To be fair, Apple did this as well by not allowing Flash on iOS devices, and took a lot of criticism for it.  Eventually it became clear that it was the right move because it helped to push the Web forward and away from proprietary codecs.  This may turn out to have the same result on the part of Google.  For web developers and consumers, however, to make this move right now is a major frustration.  Before the industry ships support for a WebM, it needs to better better hardware support, tooling support, and be a clear market winner.  From my perspective, a web developer responsible for shipping video to paying customers, it means encoding and storing my videos twice: once in H.264 for the majority of browsers which support it and Adobe Flash for legacy browser support, and also in WebM for those that support that format.  For  users, it means compatibility problems.  Users want a browser that just works, and this move puts Chrome in the Firefox box by removing support for something that a majority of the web is built on.

My personal take when Mozilla decided on Theora/WebM exclusivity now applies to Google: political grandstanding a video codec is a terrible overstepping of authority.  For content producers, there’s a certain cost for the tools to encode the video; for browser makers, there’s a certain cost to license the codec to decode the video.  For users of the browser, viewing H.264 video has always been free.  They don’t see any cost.  It’s presumptuous for Mozilla or any other browser maker to try to stick their heads into the affairs of  the professional or consumer video industry that they’re not really involved in and dictate that they use tools that don’t exist for them.  By not supporting H.264 with its undeniable market presence, they’re denying web developers and users the choice of what is better for them.  Denying choice runs contrary to virtually all in the open source/open standards community.  For all the denouncement Apple gets for the way it chooses technologies to include (or more controversially, exclude) in its products, providing exclusive support for an open codec at the expense of the already de facto industry standard is just as bad, if not worse.

Of course, YouTube could always be a wildcard.  It will be interesting to see if Google can find a way to satisfy its contractual obligations to offer H.264 video to mobile Internet devices and set top boxes and somehow go WebM exclusive.  I can’t see that happening, but I do wonder how far they’re going to take their power play?

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