Google prepares to ruin Chrome browser

Google announced yesterday that it is preparing to ruin the Chrome browser by removing support for the H.264 codec.
Written by Adrian Kingsley-Hughes, Senior Contributing Editor

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.]

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