Chrome users are the latest casualty in Google's crusade against Apple

Google is removing native support for Apple's favorite video format in their popular Chrome browser. They say they're doing us all a favor to support openness, but what's the real reason?

This week Google announced that it was removing support for the H.264 video codec from its popular Chrome browser. Specifically, if web developers use the new HTML5 <video> tag, they can no longer point to video encoded in the H.264 (AVC) standard format for Chrome users. Android users are probably not far behind. The reason given is so Google can devote more resources to support "open codec technologies" like WebM and Theora.

Jason Perlow has suggested that this move will enable Google to save money by not encoding and storing YouTube video in H.264 format. This is not the case, because H.264 is the only format allowed on Apple devices such as the iPhone and iPad. If YouTube were to become incompatible with all those devices, it would find itself replaced by competitors which were not so restrictive. Besides, H.264 is the superior format, both technically and in terms of user experience (less blockiness, fewer hitches, and lower CPU utilization).

Brian Proffitt claims that Google is making the move to avoid a patent license trap. The logic goes like this: if H.264 achieves a video monopoly then the group that holds the patents for the format (the MPEG-LA group) will stiff us all for licensing fees when the current nearly-free license agreement runs out in 2016. After all, they wanted Mozilla to pay $5 million recently (Mozilla refused). While $5 million is a lot for a not-for-profit company like Mozilla, Microsoft and Apple had no problem paying it and I doubt it would hurt Google's bottom line one iota. And while I'm philosophically against software patents, H.264 is already hugely popular because of its quality and vendor support. One browser supporting or not supporting it is not going to make any difference in its adoption.

On paper, Google is taking a principled stand in favor of open technologies. But they're not really. First, WebM is not truly an open technology because it almost certainly uses patents owned by MPEG-LA or its members. Right now, the patent holders are ignoring it because it's too small to bother with. We've seen this tactic many times before (for example, NTP vs. RIM): bide your time until a lot of people are using the infringing software and then hit it with a massive lawsuit for maximum profit. WebM is its own patent trap, and Google refuses to indemnify users against possible claims further down the road. If they were certain it was IP-clean then why hesitate to provide that protection? Clearly they don't want that unknown, possibly large liability on their balance sheet.

Second, If Google really wants to promote open technologies, they why is it so cozy with Adobe and Flash? For most definitions of "open", HTML5 and CSS3 are open but Flash is not. Think of all the resources Google put in to sandboxing Flash and checking for Flash updates. Google could use those resources towards making HTML5 more functional and making Flash and other plug-ins obsolete. Ah, but Apple doesn't support Flash, and there's the rub.

Google can use Flash as a foil against Apple because Android supports Flash but iOS does not. Google's double standard is especially noticeable if you realize that Flash supports H.264 video. So Chrome will still play H.264 video, but only if you use a Flash plug-in instead of the standard <video> tag. Clearly, it's not about openness or cost savings: this codec announcement is just another political jab at Apple.


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