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

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?
Written by Ed Bott, Senior Contributing Editor

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.

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