Thoughts on Google dropping support for the H.264 video codec in Google Chrome

Yesterday Google announced they’re dropping H.264 video codec support in Google Chrome. Whatever you think about this, it’s an interesting move and I thought I’d express my thoughts on it.

Open!

First, in line with my personal beliefs and what I think everything on the web should be, all video support in Google Chrome will now be open! Internet is a democratic right for everyone, and in line with that, we want people to be able to create content on the web without worrying about licenses for the format of the content.

Sure, we can discuss details about the licensing for WebM but I have no doubts that Google’s purpose is to have it completely open.

And no, H.264 is not open, despite what people tell you – read more about that in On Chrome Dropping H.264.

Hardware support

One thing that H.264 has had going for it is great hardware support in a lot of devices and machines. Many people seemed to cry out about WebM not offering hardware support, which is not true. If you check the WebM Supporters page, a lot of big players like AMD, ARM, Nvidia etc are working on it, and according to the word on the street (i.e. Twitter) Intel are open about supporting it.

Google’s motives

When something like this happen everyone start questioning Google and their motives, that this is just to hurt Apple and their support for H.264 in iOS, Safari and more. That it’s just to boast their own format rather than one that Apple has invested a lot in (and Microsoft to some extent). It’s also said that it’s Google being open when they want to and feel the need to convey that stance.

One argument is that if this is being done in the name of openness, how come they’re not dropping Flash support then? Flash is even part of of Google Chrome now. It’s a fair point, but I think there’s a difference there: There are tons of more Flash content on the web than video with the H.264 codec, and Flash is being filled with security vulnerabilities and crashes, so for now, it’s just about being realistic and pragmatic.

I think Google’s focus, at this time, is right; top start promoting open formats for video on the web more aggressively and make Flash as stable and secure as they can for end users. What will happen tomorrow? I don’t know, maybe Google removes Flash from Google Chrome.

Supporting Internet Explorer 9, Safari and iOS

For now, and some considerable future, we will have to offer more than one format. Simple as that. A good approach for that is the one I described in Delivering HTML5 video and fallback support with the help of Video JS.

However, while it’s a lot of both hurt pride and investment for Apple to start supporting other formats than H.264, I believe Microsoft could definitely do it. And if Microsoft are for the open web, and they do support it natively in Internet Explorer 9 (and not just if it’s installed on the operating system), it will really make a huge difference and put Apple on the spot.

Because if every major web browser but Safari (both on desktop and iOS) supports WebM, and since Android will definitely have a larger market share on mobile, Apple will have to adapt in the long run.

YouTube dropping H.264 codec support?

Just speculating now, but since YouTube is the de facto video service on the web, a possible next step could be offering videos there only in WebM (and perhaps Flash as a fallback). That would mean that no videos would work on iOS, and either people would start abandoning YouTube, or they would start using other devices/operating systems than Apple’s, if Apple don’t add support for it.

Whatever happens, it’s an interesting action by Google, and I do hope it helps the web evolving into more open when it comes to content creation as well.

11 Comments

  • JulienW says:

    “That would mean that no videos would work on iOS.”
    There will be an app for that ;-)

    More seriously, if that happens, I expect people to use a specific Youtube application to watch Youtube videos.

  • [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Links About Google, Rich_Clark and others. Rich_Clark said: Good summary from @roberynyman on the H.264/Chrome debate http://bit.ly/eOWonD [...]

  • Trygve Lie says:

    I think there are some other interesting aspects here. As you point out; Google do own Youtube. Youtube are the largest online video source on the planet.

    The H.264 license has a clause in it where the provider of content might in the future be obligated to pay a fee for just keeping content stored in H.264. For Youtube this will be ha huge amount of money it such a clause get executed.

    The fact are; Youtube are now converting new and existing videos to webm. Chrome are now dropping H.264 for webm. Newest version of Android have webm support and Flash are implementing webm. In other words; with webm in Flash; Youtube can seriously start to drop H.264. With webm in Flash, webm support will be as wide spread as H.264.

    I think that in near future we will reach a market share for webm where serving video content in one format and not two are sane. In this case; the only one not being able to play webm are iPad / iPhone. But; in the big picture, how much market share does these devices have.

    The time to come will be interesting.

  • Robert Nyman says:

    JulienW,

    Most likely, like the SkyFire web browser. But the user will most likely not be as good as native support.

    Trygve,

    Definitely, there is a lot of money at stake, and it will be very interesting to see what the next move will be.

  • Steve Williams says:

    I don’t believe Google’s announcement is as much about openness as it is about trying to gain share of the mobile device market.

    We could really use some coherence in supported audio and video formats between browsers right now, instead it seems we’re destined for yet more disparity, pain and corporate bs :(

    In light of this announcement, will H.264 change and become truly open and would Google then have a change of heart? I think not, but would love to be proved wrong on both counts :)

  • Andy says:

    Thanks, Robert, finally a balanced view on the matter!

    This sums up my view on this:
    Google is a company with balls, that really supports the **Open Web** — Do you know what that means? It means **no patent-encumbered** technology on the Web.

  • Robert Nyman says:

    Steve,

    Wow, haven’t seen your presence here in years! :-)

    Whether Google do it to be open or plain business interest, I’ll leave unsaid. However, more open results means a better web for me.

    Like you mention, I do wonder what the next move by MPEG LA and H.264 will be.

    Andy,

    Thanks, glad you liked it!
    Google definitely takes its risks, and sometimes that’s just what you have to do.

  • Steve Williams says:

    I’ve kept an eye in :)

    But does openness always equal better? In this case I think no, because surely it’s Adobe Flash that wins and I can’t see how that is better at all :(

  • Robert Nyman says:

    Steve,

    If openness always equals better? Well, that’s a very long discussion with many facets… But for anything on the web, I’d definitely say yes. But I think we need to also not look where we are today and which choice would give the least friction, but rather where we want to be tomorrow and beyond that.

    And that is, in my book at least, as open as possible.

    Not sure Flash will, temporarily, gain from this, actually, but it’s hard to tell. But if this doesn’t turn put the way Google hopes, I fell pretty certain the next step will shake things around even more.

  • Better or not I support their commitment to support open internet.

  • Robert Nyman says:

    Montreal Web Design,

    Absolutely, open is definitely the way to go.

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