Infrastructure // PC & Servers
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1/26/2011
07:53 PM
Kurt Marko
Kurt Marko
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Codec Wars: What About Mobile Devices And Content Sites

Last week I commented about Google's decision to eliminate support for the H.264 video codec standard from Chrome and while I initially focused on the implications for PC users, given the growing use of mobile browsers, I wondered if the ramifications could be even more significant for them. Well, on further reflection, I'm not too worried, at least yet.

Last week I commented about Google's decision to eliminate support for the H.264 video codec standard from Chrome and while I initially focused on the implications for PC users, given the growing use of mobile browsers, I wondered if the ramifications could be even more significant for them. Well, on further reflection, I'm not too worried, at least yet.As everyone remembers, prior to Google's announcement, the biggest video controversy in the mobile market was fueled by Apple, with Jobs making well known his disdain for Flash. Given that Flash still accounts for something like 90% of Web video content, this posed a problem (and still does) for those millions of iPhone and iPad owners. Well, HTML5 to the rescue. With native support for H.264 built into all versions of Safari (including iOS), this just hastened the move by content producers to offer native HTML5 versions of their videos. Into this mess steps Google with the announcement that they won'tsupport H.264 in their browser. Doesn't this put video sites between a rock and a hard spot. Not really, since unlike iOS, Androiddoes support plug ins, including Flash. Since Flash essentially acts as a 'container' for any number of codecs, including H.264, this means Android users will see no change from Google's announcement. In fact, until native HTML5 with H.264 becomes more common, Flash support could give the new generation of Android tablets a strategic advantage over the iPad.

So if Google's announcement has little affect on Web clients, i.e. to video consumers, it could get interesting on the server side, i.e. video distributors, where Google, via YouTube, is the 800 pound gorilla. While Google is shunning native H.264 client support in favor of the presumably more open (and undoubtedly less expensive) WebM standard, it hasn't made a like decision for its Web properties. On YouTube's still optional HTML5 site, the vast majority of content is in H.264, but who knows if they're not quietly using their vast server farms to re-encode all of this into WebM -- much like they did when YouTube first it first adopted HTML5/H.264 back in 2007 (ironically enough, to support Apple TV). This actually seems quite likely, however the big unknown is whether Google would then drop H.264 content from YouTube.

If my earlier suspicion that Google's announcement is all about their exerting even more control over Web video content, then it's likely they would play hardball and force Apple's hand by doing just this. No Flash, no H.264, no YouTube for all those iOS users. How such a scenario would play out is too many moves down the chess board for my crystal ball. Perhaps Apple would buckle and support Flash (doubtful), WebM (more likely) or develop some other codec-agnostic plug-in technology for Safari (even more likely). Maybe they'd try and line that hardball right back up the middle by confirming the rumors and turning iTunes into a Web site, integrating it into Safari and making it a viable YouTube alternative. Who knows, but much like the earlier music battles between various encoders and storefronts, it will certainly be fun to watch.

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