Google created quite the Internet buzz last week with their announcement dropping support for the H.264 video codec standard as the default HTML5 video player in Chrome, opting instead to use technology from the open source WebM project. Although H.264 is an ITU standard for high definition video and is already widely used on Blu-ray discs, apparently it's not open enough, or perhaps as easily manipulable, for Google's liking. Since their original announcement was woefully short on specifics, using vague arguments like "the open and community-driven development model is a key factor in [the Web's] rapid evolution and ubiquitous adoption" -- something presumably missing from an ITU standard -- it opened the door to widespread speculation on ulterior motives.In a bit of firefighting, Google clarified their position by objecting to license fees required to embed patented H.264 technology in Chrome. While vendors like Google must obtain a license to integrate H.264 into their products, the maximum fee is $6.5 million per year, chump change for a behemoth like Google. Furthermore, the MPEG LA announced in August that what they call "Internet Broadcast AVC Video", i.e. H.264, is free to end users and that "royalties will continue not to be charged for such video beyond that time" (i.e. the end of the current license agreement, December 31, 2015). But it's not just the licensing terms, Google feels the pace of H.264 innovation just isn't fast enough, due to the conflicting goals of trying to maximize license revenue while simultaneously pushing the technology. Sorry Google, but this just doesn't pass the smell test.
In case you weren't confused enough, Google claims their decision doesn't mean Chrome users won't be able to play H.264 content since they can still use Flash and Silverlight plug-ins that will continue to support the standard. In addition, since Apple and Microsoft have shown no intention of backing WebM, Google heralds the pending release of plug-ins for Safari and IE9 allowing them to render WebM content. Of course, it's not clear if these will ever be available for mobile devices, the fastest growing segment of the browser market.
What this all means for the beleaguered end user is that no matter which browser you prefer, you're going to be stuck using plug-ins to view video. If you're on Chrome, you'll be at the mercy of Adobe and Flash, which seems to be the big winner so far in this imbroglio. If you stick with the native Windows or OS X browsers, and Google manages to arm twist enough sites (including their own YouTube) to use WebM, it's plug-in time again.
This all wreaks of a power play, since in talking with some engineers over at Interdigital, a company that develops wireless network optimization technologies -- including codecs -- there's no discernible quality or compression difference between the two formats. Furthermore, they claim that H.264's software ecosystem for content creation and distribution is far richer than WebM's, which largely has yet to be built.
Let's hope we don't have to live with this Web version of VHS versus Betamax until the next ITU standard, H.265 which promises twice the compression at HD quality, is ready, but if this indeed is a move by Google to establish format hegemony, expect a protracted battle. The rest of us will just have to make sure our browsers and extensions are set to auto-update.