Google Chrome to drop H.264 support; roadblock to HTML5?

Google Chrome to drop H.264 support; roadblock to HTML5?

Summary: Just when you thought the World Wide Web was cruising smoothly toward a standards-compliant HTML5 Promised Land, Google decided to break away and head into uncharted territory. By dropping H.264 support in Google Chrome, it's taking on Apple and Microsoft directly. What does it mean?

TOPICS: Google

Update: For a further discussion of the patent-related issues and costs, see my follow-up post, By dropping H.264, is Google avoiding a trap or walking into one?

Just when you thought the World Wide Web was cruising smoothly toward a standards-compliant HTML5 Promised Land, Google decided to break away and head into uncharted territory. Today, in an innocuous-looking post on the Chromium Blog, Google Product Manager Mike Jazayeri announced that support for the popular H.264 codec would be dropped from Google Chrome:

[W]e are changing Chrome’s HTML5 <video> support to make it consistent with the codecs already supported by the open Chromium project. Specifically, we are supporting the WebM (VP8) and Theora video codecs, and will consider adding support for other high-quality open codecs in the future. Though H.264 plays an important role in video, as our goal is to enable open innovation, support for the codec will be removed and our resources directed towards completely open codec technologies.

These changes will occur in the next couple months but we are announcing them now to give content publishers and developers using HTML <video> an opportunity to make any necessary changes to their sites.

That puts Google at odds with Microsoft, which has publicly declared its support for H.264 as the default video codec in IE9. More importantly, it puts Apple between a rock and a hard place. Google still publicly supports Adobe Flash, which offers a supported path for developers to deliver H.264 encoded content in Google's browser. But Apple's bitter public feud with Adobe means it has banned Flash from all iOS devices, leaving H.264  as the only supported codec.

Google's primary argument in favor of its own WebM and Theora codecs is that they're "open." Unfortunately, they're also late to a party where the momentum is seriously in favor of H.264. As I noted back in May, when this battle first began brewing, H.264 has serious performance advantages over its competitors: Just about every modern graphic processing unit (GPU) now has H.264 decoding built into the silicon, and IE9 is going to take advantage of hardware acceleration for graphics and text." That has a huge impact on performance, battery life, and heat, all of which are crucial to the next wave of computing platforms.

For big companies, licensing H.264 costs a relative pittance (I broke down the costs back in May). In exchange, licensees get the right to use an enormous portfolio of patents from 26 companies in the pool administered by the MPEG Licensing Authority (MPEG-LA). That provides security against patent-related lawsuits. Indeed, it was a key reason for Microsoft’s decision to adopt H.264. As IE General Manager Dean Hachamovitch explained last May, “H.264 … provides the best certainty and clarity with respect to legal rights from the many companies that have patents in this area.”

For a detailed backgrounder on this issue, including explanations of what H.264 and Google's "open" codecs are all about, see Microsoft fires back at critics of its HTML5 strategy and H.264 patents: how much do they really cost?

Going forward, this is unlikely to be an issue for Windows users. H.264 codecs are included with Windows 7 and, presumably, in the next version of Windows, which means that video clips encoded using H.264 can be played back on any modern Windows PC. Microsoft's decision to support H.264 natively in the browser doesn’t preclude third parties from adding their own codecs and plugins. Because the VP8 and Theora codecs are open source, they can easily be added to Windows. And, of course, the Windows platform supports other browsers besides Internet Explorer, including Google Chrome.

One big question that remains unanswered in Google's announcement today is whether future versions of Chrome will actively block the installation of H.264 support via plug-ins, especially in devices running the Chrome OS. If Google takes that drastic approach, it risks alienating content providers and developers.

The other big question is how MPEG LA, which administers the H.264 patent portfolio, will respond. As open-source patent expert Florian Mueller noted today via Twitter, "the jury is still out ... seriously out" on whether Google's VP8 format is truly free of patent issues. The CEO of MPEG LA, Larry Horn, has already hinted that it is looking carefully at Google's patents:

[N]o one in the market should be under the misimpression that other codecs such as Theora are patent-free. Virtually all codecs are based on patented technology, and many of the essential patents may be the same as those that are essential to AVC/H.264. Therefore, users should be aware that a license and payment of applicable royalties is likely required to use these technologies developed by others, too.

It could be that Google's plan is to tip the hand of MPEG LA and force this issue into the courts as quickly as possible. If that happens, the road to a standards-compliant web will be blocked for a long time to come.

Topic: Google

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Is H.264 patent encumbered, by any chance? (NT)

    John L. Ries
    • RE: Google Chrome to drop H.264 support; roadblock to HTML5 standard?

      @John L. Ries

      The company who owns the patent has said that they will not for at least the next ten years expect anyone to pay for this codec. By that time, the facts are that something else will have popped up that is even better.
      • Not good enough

        @Lerianis10 <br>Ten years is sufficient time to get users hooked so that that patent holder can then make some real money (drug dealer business model).<br><br>Patents are not acceptable in open standards. The codec should be rejected.
        John L. Ries
      • EVERYONE pays for H.264

        @Lerianis10 - don't kid yourself, the costs for H.264 are buried in devices you buy, in software you buy, and elsewhere. And of course, if you actually do anything non-free with video and want to use it as a codec, you pay directly as well.

        While the costs aren't huge, it's an impediment to the small innovators - both the cost itself (innovating often happens on a threadbare-shoestring budget), and the time sucked away from direct-value-add to administer the license.

        And note, MPEG-LA reserves the right to change its mind about even the current free uses. Your 10 years could become a couple of months, if things don't go the way their corporate sponsors want it to.
      • RE: Google Chrome to drop H.264 support; roadblock to HTML5 standard?

        @Lerianis10 There is a patent Troll out right now who is suing various mobile manufacturers for using H.264. How ludicrous is this? CEO of MPEG-LA is the CEO of Mobile Media suing his own MPEG-LA License holders like Apple!<br><br>MPEG-LA intends to lock up video content on the web to the point that they kill open formats and force the use of just their codecs. At the same time, they are suing their own partners in their own patent pool, with 3rd party patent trolls. How absolutely ridiculous is this?<br>Here's a quote from the article:<br>"What this story illustrates - apart from the idiocy of the US patent system, obviously - is that despite the reassuring cuddles from Apple, Microsoft, and its supporters, the MPEG-LA is anything but afraid of playing dirty patent games. It would be one thing if the patent troll was merely owned by the MPEG-LA, but having the same CEO only makes it all the more clear.<br><br>The MPEG-LA is shackling the web (and beyond) to H264 and its patents, so that it will be able to collect royalties until the end of time, and sue anyone who dares to step out of line. Their behaviour is harming innovation, and a direct threat to the freedom of the web. MobileMedia Ideas' patent troll behaviour is only a taste of what's to come if we allow H264 to ruin the web even further." End Quote!<br>Link:<br><a href="" target="_blank" rel="nofollow"><a href="" target="_blank" rel="nofollow"></a></a><br><br>Google is only serving notice that they aren't going to stand by and let this happen. HTML5 was originally meant to be about freeing up the web with Open Standards in order to transfer control from a few greedy power mongering individual proprietary companies (like Adobe) or pools/groups of individuals (MPEG-LA) to the masses of small developers and content providers on the web free of any licensing requirements. As the largest provider of video content on the web Google has the right and obligation to put to use the codec they've paid for and turned over to the public community at large. Right now they are the only thing standing in the way of MPEG-LA's complete and utter proprietary domination of all video content on the web. In the future they can charge whatever they want and by proxy sue their own pool members for using the very same H.264 encoders they are supposedly protecting. Now that's messed up big time!!!!

        The second most ridiculous thing about Ed's ignorant defense of MPEG-LA's H.264 overwhelmingly PATENT ENCUMBERED formats, is his asinine assumption that VP-8 is somehow not accelerated, without ever a determination that the content needs acceleration. Beyond that provided by HTML5 natively through accelerated browsers and right now the acceleration afforded FLASH via WebGL or Nvidia and AMD's new Open Drivers. The acceleration is already there in the form of these new programmable chips via firmware updates!!!

        Now Ed's arguments become moot. Direct on chip acceleration is on the way! ;)
    • Hard to imagine

      @John L. Ries

      It's a pretty awesome (in the strict sense of the word)portfolio. Follow the link back to my original report, and note that more than 800 companies, including Google, have licensed it.
      Ed Bott
    • Yes

      But an extensive list of patents is available for non-discriminatory licensing from MPEG LA.<br><br>A bizarre decision by Google. Lose significant patent protection and hardware acceleration for a technically inferior video codec.
      Richard Flude
      • I have to agree with you . . .

        @Richard Flude

        It would seem that the ship on this has already sailed . . .
      • RE: Google Chrome to drop H.264 support; roadblock to HTML5 standard?

        @Richard Flude - HTML5 (which is the only standard for which Google is making this decision -- they'll still allow you to play H.264 exactly the way you do today in Chrome) is still shaking out. On Adrian's blog, i discussed an alternate universe where Tim Berners-Lee patented HTML, and demanded royalties for all non-free use -- that would have had a significant dampening effect on the growth of the web, and the information economy. Google is taking the long view, and wants video to be unencumbered go forward, so it can flourish just like HTML and the web did.

        A big part of that equation is driving hardware support for VP8 ... if they continued to allow H.264 in Chrome, and Firefox was the only browser that didn't support it for HTML5 video, it would just reinforce MPEG-LA's dominant position.

        And VP8 isn't that inferior today, and a year from now? In some use cases its been shown to be better, aamof.

        Finally, I do wonder if they also were hearing from netbook makers that they didn't want to pay MPEG-LA fees for Chrome OS devices, since margins are so slim already on that front.

        Now is the ONLY time they could do it.
    • A rather obvious play

      @John L. Ries<br><br>MPEG-LA is simply making it cheap enough/free until H.264 has become THE "standard", at which time the fees will start to go up.<br><br>Only a fool will fall for this play. Google is doing the right thing.
      • RE: Google Chrome to drop H.264 support; roadblock to HTML5 standard?

        @Economister No, they get a 10 year "gift". In 10 years we will have gone through three or four newer and better codecs.

        Face it, Google blew it.
      • RE: Google Chrome to drop H.264 support; roadblock to HTML5 standard?

        @NoAx - 10 years, unless MPEG-LA changes its mind. They've reserved the right to do so. And if their corporate sponsors sense that things aren't going the way they want ($$), they'll be under significant pressure to do so.
    • Heavily encumbered

      @John L. Ries

      "free to use" doesn't tell the whole story.

      We should not accept anything which forces more licensing chains around our ankles as a standard.

      Kudos to Google.

      Unfortunately there will be no solution to software patent racketeering as long as these companies continue to own our elected officials.
      Tim Patterson
  • A fine opening move

    "It could be that Google?s plan is to tip the hand of MPEG LA and force this issue into the courts as quickly as possible."

    I think this is a key move a very interesting game of chess. H264 hardware support is the biggest obstacle to WebM adoption.

    Idealogically, WebM has it licked but on a practical level, H264 is too convenient and mobile devices will not be able to upgrade their hardware to support hardware decoding of WebM.

    I would expect as a result of this battle, the unconditional opening and unrestricted licensing of H264 (for web & open source use) to come sometime in the next year. That would be the best possible outcome for everyone (including Google which is only fighting this fight for that reason I believe).
    • RE: Google Chrome to drop H.264 support; roadblock to HTML5 standard?

      @takapa I think Google is really worried about the extremely high income they are making off of distributing video. Albeit indirectly it may be argued in court at some point and if you are making tons of money using the H.264 CODEC you will pay royalties.
    • RE: Google Chrome to drop H.264 support; roadblock to HTML5 standard?

      I think you would be lucky. A good few of the patent holders in H.264 are research houses for whom the patent licenses are their sole income. These aren't trolls. They did the research and filed the patents, and convinced MPEG to include their ideas. MPEG-LA won't be able to give those away for free, so SOMEONE has to pay something somewhere.
  • I do not see it as a problem. VP8 is a much better codec, and websites can

    easily serve up videos in both formats. A small fraction of the problems created by MS still supporting old IE versions.
    • RE: Google Chrome to drop H.264 support; roadblock to HTML5 standard?

      @DonnieBoy <br><br>No, it isn't a much better codec. Practical studies have shown that H.264 uses LESS power and can deliver HIGHER QUALITY content than VP8 at the same bitrate.
    • VP8 is *worse* codec, alas

      @DonnieBoy: the subject.
    • Interesting in regards to ChromeOS. Are we viewing the first

      of many concearns to running an operating system you can not control?
      Should Microsoft or Apple pull support for a particular standard, you could install the codec yourself via competing browsers.

      With ChromeOS, you can not.
      Tim Cook