In some technology circles, you'd think Google was proposing throwing cats into a wood-chipper from the way some people are reacting to Google's announcement that it was focusing its support on its own open VP8/WebM and Theora video codecs, and dropping support for H.264. This is not a step back for openness; any kind of new road-block for HTML5; nor is it going to ruin the Chrome browser. It's just another chapter in the Web's video standard wars.
Let's start from the top: How can Google's move be a step back for openness when both WebM and Theora are the only video codecs that actually are open source? H.264 while extremely popular is a proprietary format and its encumbered by patents held by MPEG LA, a patent holding company. Historically, MPEG LA hasn't charged much for the use of H.264, but who's to say that MPEG LA is always going to stay that generous?
Today, as the patent lawsuit madness surrounding smartphones shows, technology innovation is starting to take a backseat to patent litigation. Even the open-source favorite Theora isn't completely clear of patent issues.
Maybe, in the long run Google just wants to see what patent trolls may be out there waiting for either VP8 or Theora. In the short run, as Jason Perlow suggests, perhaps Google wants to cut down on the infrastructure costs of supporting half-a-dozen plus different video code variants. After all, if someone really wants H.264 video, depending on its container, they can view it with Adobe Flash, Apple QuickTime, or some other browser add-on program that includes H.264 support.
Or, maybe, here's a thought, this is a strategic move against Apple, which doesn't support Flash on the iPhone or iPad and against Microsoft, which is supporting H.264. Google wouldn't be the only other Web-browser company doing this. As open-source expert Simon Phipps points out both Firefox and Opera also support Theora.
This seems to me to be the most likely explanation. There seems to be this illusion that HTML 5, the latest proposed version of the Web's foundation markup language, would somehow magically get rid of all the fights about video codecs and we'd all be able to view all video from any browser. What nonsense!
Sure, Ian Hickson, one of the editors of the HTML 5 standard, said, "One of HTML 5's goals is to move the Web away from proprietary technologies such as Flash, Silverlight, and JavaFX, but HTML5's codec-neutral video tag doesn't spell out which codec would be the official standard codec. In short, the World Wide Web Consortium's (W3C) ended up just pushing the same old Web video standard fights into a new arena. Now, besides the usual fights over which is better or more open, it's also about which one is better for HTML 5.
While I think the answer is the more open standards, VP8 and Theroa, what I think doesn't matter much. This is just a round in another standard fight: the real question is who will win and get control and money. I doubt we'll see a winner this decade. The W3C moves very slowly and these are multi-billion dollar companies struggling with each other.
All the browser companies have their favorites. Google has just declared which ones they like the most. For users, it won't make a damn bit of difference. In 2020, developers are still going to fighting over video standards, there still won't be an official HTML5 video codec; and no matter what browser you'll be using, you'll still need one or more helper applications to be sure that you'll be able to watch all 800,000 plus funny cat videos.