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1/18/2011
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Analysis: Google Dropping H.264 Support In Chrome Is Shortsighted

Google's singular focus on WebM misses the big picture, and is a real misstep for a company that aims for universally accessible information.

For Google to eliminate support for H.264 in Chrome in favor of the WebM codec is a shortsighted decision. WebM will likely catch on eventually, and the ITU H.264 licensing criteria are vague at best and suggest that large companies with multinational footprints (read: Google) may be required to pay hefty fees. But widen your gaze beyond streamed video, such as YouTube, and videoconferencing, and the next big area of technology expansion comes into focus.

Web video and video from service providers are converging at a rapid pace. Consumers are subscribing to Netflix not to get the latest DVDs in snail mail, but to stream, on an unlimited basis, to their favorite devices--a reality reflected in Netflix's recent price structure changes. The device of choice may be a tablet or smartphone on the road, but at home, it’s often going to be a Web-enabled TV. And that spells problems for the WebM codec.

Imagine that you're ready to watch the latest installment of your favorite sitcom. You turn on the TV, browse to your favorites folder, click, wait a few seconds and see, "Video format unrecognized." The problem is that the video was encoded in WebM for play out by Chrome or an application supplied by a Google partner. That partner may be Adobe, but it's not going to be Microsoft. And if the manufacturer of your TV or set-top box decodes the video for viewing, there’s even less of a chance that it will support the WebM format.

When the default video codec for broadcasters was MPEG-2 or Flash, the consumer television industry resisted for several years accepting VC-1 compression. Consequently, Microsoft dropped VC-1 in favor of H.264. This was a lesson about non-standards-based codecs.

Television viewers aren’t the only ones who will be inconvenienced by this move. Currently, browsers using a built-in player or passing downloaded video to a player like Flash or Windows Media will also be affected. It is true that Google points to the WebM site for workarounds, but expecting end users to download a utility to make something function that previously worked without a hitch is asking for a revolt. In the enterprise, this move will dampen official support for Chrome, since users of the browser won’t be running videoconferences with non-Chrome users anytime soon. Videoconferencing manufacturers took half a decade to support IP transport, and then it was another half decade until they supported H.264. They certainly won’t embrace the WebM codec in 2011.

The big question then is, Why drop support for H.264 instead of keeping it and integrating WebM as a second-choice codec? Dozens of devices and applications auto-detect H.264, Silverlight, and Flash and run in the correct mode. Visiting the WebM pages provides insight into this strange decision. For example, WebM uses Vorbis audio. Certainly we all recognize that. Sure, your Windows Media Player won't, but there is a fix. You just need to go download and install another utility. Who's ready to go back to plug-ins?

How could a company as savvy as Google ignore these points? I think it simply missed the fact that we’re seeing a repeat of what happened several years ago, when IT companies absorbed much of the functionality once delivered by telephony providers. This phenomenon is now playing out for the broadcast industry. The question is, Will Google’s abandoning H.264 make it miss this wave?

Phil Hippensteel is an assistant professor of information systems at Penn State and an industry consultant.

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