Google prepares to ruin Chrome browser

Google prepares to ruin Chrome browser

Summary: Google announced yesterday that it is preparing to ruin the Chrome browser by removing support for the H.264 codec.

TOPICS: Browser, Google

Google announced yesterday that it is preparing to ruin the Chrome browser by removing support for the H.264 codec.

Google broke the new on the Chromium Blog:

We expect even more rapid innovation in the web media platform in the coming year and are focusing our investments in those technologies that are developed and licensed based on open web principles. To that end, we 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.

Why is Google doing this? The only reason given is that WebM and Theora are "open" codecs while H.264 is not. But then Chrome supports plenty of "closed" standards, such as Flash, so dropping H.264 support is only a small step in making Chrome more "open."

Is this more related to fears that the MPEG-LA, the group that owns the patents relating to H.264, will demand cash for its use? No. Why? Because the MPEG-LA made H.264 effectively free to use to those who freely distribute AVC/H.264 video until 2016 - which is near enough forever in tech terms.

Note: Peter Csathy of Sorenson Media explains what this free usage of H.264 means:

'But, you say, MPEG LA recently announced that it will no longer charge royalties for the use of H.264. Yes, it’s true – MPEG LA recently bowed to mounting pressure from, and press surrounding, WebM and announced something that kind of sounds that way. But, I caution you to read the not-too-fine print. H.264 is royalty-free only in one limited case – for Internet video that is delivered free to end users. Read again: for (1) Internet delivery that is (2) delivered free to end users. In the words of MPEG LA’s own press release, "Products and services other than [those] continue to be royalty-bearing."'

So yes, H.264 is not truly 'free' in broad terms, but for most web users, it's good enough.

There's also no real reason to believe that either WebM or Theora aren't encumbered by patent issues. Codecs are wildly complex technologies, and it only takes one tiny part of the code to veer into patented territory to cause problems. Any assumption that WebM is unencumbered by patents is just that - an assumption.

So, what's actually behind this move? Some suggest that it's a genuine push towards open source by Google, but given that Google now bundles a Flash player in with the browser, that seems somewhat at odds with the whole "free" ethos. The only winner here seems to be Adobe, which already supports H.264 via Flash, and plan to add WebM support. So in effect what Google is doing here is making the end user (Chrome users) more reliant on closed standards, not less. My feeling is that Google is trying to be disruptive in the same way that Apple was when it refused to have the Flash player on the iPhone and iPad. But Apple had good reason to do this on devices that were power-limited since Flash was indeed a performance and battery life vampire.

The H.264 really is a top-notch video standard, and it has become better lately thanks to hardware decoding being built into modern GPUs which help take the strain off the CPU. We're a long way off from seeing support hardware support for standards such as WebM and Theora.

So, for no obviously beneficial reason to the end user, Google is purposely choosing to ruin the Chrome browser. That's a shame since Chrome is otherwise such a good browser. Removing native H.264 support from the browser simply makes the end users more reliant on Flash player, which is not good and does nothing for open source software.

I now probably go back to using IE ... so long Chrome, nice knowing you.

Bad move Google.

[UPDATE: Oh, the cost argument of using H.264 rears its ugly head. I'll home in on ITWorld's Brian Proffitt argument for no reason other than he homed in on mine:

The fact is, H.264 can expensive for software and hardware developers to license if it doesn't fall into this narrow line of use. MPEG LA, the keeper of the H.264 codec, told Mozilla to cough up $5 million to license H.264 in the Firefox browser--which is why there's no H.264 support in Firefox.

Is Proffitt really trying to make the point that $5 million is too rich for Google? Seriously ...

... ROFL ...

Proffitt seems to confuse my statement that H.264 is "effectively free to use to those who freely distribute AVC/H.264 video until 2016" (my exact quote) with a notion that it should be free for everyone. Why the heck should it be free? Who gave that impression? Google is a massive, billion-dollar corporation, and a few million bucks licensing fee is a drop in the ocean for it. Google's whole plan with Chrome and Chrome OS is to put the Google brand in the forefront of people's minds and get them using Google services. It's using its browser and OS to do that, so it's only right that it pays for the technology that it uses. Licensing fee becomes a cost of doing business. There's no such thing as a free lunch.

Proffitt disagrees with this view of companies paying their way and thinks that instead users need to feel pain:

So while I understand the aggravation that users are going through, I put Google's decision in the same context as I did when my daughters were vaccinated: yes, there's pain now, but it will prevent a lot of suffering later.

Pffft, what pain? Google doesn't have a monopoly on the browser. People will just migrate to stuff that just works. like IE, or Safari. 

The point I'm making is that if Google is objecting to paying a fee, then it needs to make that clear, rather than hide behind the banner of open source while still supporting closed-box technologies such as Flash.

I think that it's great that Google is working on developing an open solution to video (assuming that it is patent free ... a big assumption to make at this point), but standards and codecs take time to become established. Now is not the time to foist WebM on users of Chrome users, and it's certainly too soon to start strong-arming those who make a living from video on the web.

For an excellent analysis of the costs I point Proffitt and others to Ed Bott's piece from a few months ago.]

Topics: Browser, 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
  • RE: Google prepares to ruin Chrome browser

    It does not matter if WebM is encumberent in patents, Google can keep it tide up in the courts for years or in tech terms a eternity why it developed an build a non patent breaking version.
    • A fight worth fighting

      @Knowles2 - completely agree. If a company is going to spend time and money fighting for something, it might as well be technologies that are open or ensuring they remain open.

      @ Adrian Kingsley-Hughes: Not much of a forward thinker, are you. Do you wait until 2016 to address an issue (reactive) or do you address it before it becomes a major stumbling block (proactive) - forcing companies to rebuild their core technologies once again?

      I know this is only the blog section of this rag but seriously... living in the moment is useful when one is either fighting for their lives or engaging in sex. Most other times it worth looking at the past and preparing for the future that separates us from lower life-forms.
      • Hypocritical thinking

        >>> If a company is going to spend time and money fighting for something, it might as well be technologies that are open or ensuring they remain open. >>>

        And that's why Google is promoting and using the "closed", proprietary Adobe Flash?

        "Do no evil" my butt...
      • About Proprietary Data Formats taking a foothold...

        @MacCanuck: I'm not a big fan of Adobe's flash technology but if I was in Google's position and wanted to transition away from flash, I might start with html5, WebM, etc... It's pretty clear that removing h.264 is *not* going to have a dramatic effect on a user's browsing experience now and can simplify issues in the future (certainly before h.264 establishes a foothold).

        Removing flash, on the other hand, would have an immediate detrimental effect on a user's browsing experience *now*. So fighting a well-established technology *now* would be an emotional response vs a practical business move. Really... it would be stupid. I hate flash but need flash. I'm certain you understand the differences...
      • RE: Google prepares to ruin Chrome browser


        Google truly wants an open and free web so that it can make more money. Flash will be on the chopping block once something open can take its place.
  • RE: Google prepares to ruin Chrome browser

    How does this move amount to ruining the browser??!!?? Eventually, if the codec is widely adopted by the end users, there will be someone who will provide the support via an addon!
  • RE: Google prepares to ruin Chrome browser

    In other news: Adrian Kingsley-Hughes prepares to ruin his column for ZDNet by turning his back on the Chrome browser. I now probably go back to reading ... something else ? so long Adrian, nice knowing you :)

    Seriously, why H.264 matters to you? Firefox and Opera also don't support it AFAIK. Everything on Web still works without it. It is just a battle for the NEW standard on the next Web 3.0. Microsoft & Apple want it to be H.264, Google, Firefox & Opera want it to be WebM. Just a little war between rival corporations with different business models, nothing to see here, move along.
    • Not so fast...

      Firefox won't support WebM until 4 is released, IE will only support H.264, and now Chrome will not support H.264 at all either. Effectively, any web based video delivery platform will need at least 3 copies of every video file for years to come if you want to make the most of your target audience.

      The least they could have done is allow for some transition phase until the various platforms can agree on at most two formats and the browser market catches up; this effectively guarantees that the Flash player will maintain an equal, if not dominant, position in the video delivery realm for the near future, as it reduces the amount of duplicate work and wasted space.
      • RE: Google prepares to ruin Chrome browser

        @dzdrazil - do you know any CURRENT web based delivery platform that doesn't rely on Flash? There is no need for compatibility or transition phase on HTML 5 videos, as nobody rely on them yet. Battle is for FUTURE platforms. Would you choose H.264 as exclusive for your future video platform if you'd know that only Apple & Microsoft support it? No. Would you choose H.264 over WebM if everybody would support H.264 it reluctantly, but only Google&Firefox would support WebM? Yes. Google move effectively kills H.264 monopoly, and that is a good move for future open standards.
      • RE: Google prepares to ruin Chrome browser

        @dzdrazil Chrome will still support H.264 but through the flash plugin. This move makes Chrome much more dependent on plugins in general and Flash in particular. A strange thing to do... It seems Google is putting its muscle behind Flash.
        The Star King
  • HELLO...

    Google is trying to pull (and be) a Microsoft by setting it's own "standards", often with inferior technology. Who needs another codec when there are superior ones already available?

    eg, remember all the proprietary tags. etc MS put in IExplorer that caused so much grief for web developers.

    Google is getting too big for it's britches and thinks it can control all by making plays like this.

    Don't let it! ... or we'll truly have another MS and anti-trust, anti-competition issues a few years down the line.
    • The problem with your reasoning, is that WebM is all open source, and so is

      the Chrome browser. So, Microsoft or anybody else will be able to freely implement this, including using all the source code.
      • RE: Google prepares to ruin Chrome browser

        chrome doesn't work with fingerprint scanners for auto logon on several different laptops that I own. I do however feel that because this locks you into requiring flash even on the mobile platforms, it has more to do with hurting iOS.
    • RE: Google prepares to ruin Chrome browser

      @MacCanuck <br>Agreed, and funny how people will complain for fragmentation of HTML 5 and advocate for Android (the fragmented mobile os of choice). Oh well hypocrisies abound.
  • To be truthful, Chrome doesn't cut it for me.

    Firefox still wins and tips the scale in the plugin department.

    The argument over speed difference (measured in milliseconds) is lost on me. It is negligable perception-wise, for the most case.
    Dietrich T. Schmitz, ~ Your Linux Advocate
    • IF it only were milliseconds of difference

      @Dietrich T. Schmitz, Your Linux Advocate But in my case - and on 4 different PCs it is not... perhaps the Linux versions are different but on Windows the speed difference between Firefox and Chrome is almost minutes... it take Firefox a minute more to start up vs Chrome, it takes 30-45 seconds longer for Firefox to load a graphics intensive page than Chrome. When Firefox first came out I ditched Netscape and never looked back because it as blazing fast. Now it's gotten slow and bloated and the plug ins do not help.
      • RE: Google prepares to ruin Chrome browser

        @athynz - if your machines are taking more than 5s to start any browser - be it Chrome, FF or IE, then there's something very wrong on your PC's.
      • RE: Google prepares to ruin Chrome browser

        agreed, Chrome is faster than all, period. i dont think there is even the need to debate this.
        and i agree that starting time for FF and IE are pathetic comparing to Chrome.
        that is not true, on an average machine, FF takes its sweet time to start comparing to Chrome which always starts instantaneously.
        not that it matters a lot but that is a fact.

        and unless your machine is perfectly a clean install on a clean HD in side a good rig, you will notice load times for all browsers but Chrome.
      • Milliseconds sounds about right


        Sounds like your computer is a pentium pro 200 with 128 mbs of ram. Or one has been infected or one has too many startups in HKLM_Software_Microsoft_Windows_CurrentVersion_Run\ whatever.exe... . My machine launches Firefox in 1 to 2 seconds cold and instantly from thereafter. You shouldn't have more than 28 processes in task manager running. Chrome launches slightly faster cold but the same thereafter. Websurfs no faster than anyone else. Actually IE launches the fastest because a lot of its library is already preloaded on startup.
      • Somethings bad wrong if it is taking that long to load.

        @athynz Either you are running on a way old machine (Pentium II) or something is way wrong with your computer. My wife has an old PIII 1.3 Ghz Mobile and it loads Chrome in just a few seconds.