Google wants WebM not H.264 for HTML5 video chat

Google wants its WebM/VP8 codec to be made a mandatory standard for real-time communications on the web, and has recommended against the use of the H.264 codec. While this is fine in theory, H.264 is already entrenched, and Google itself supports it
Written by Jack Schofield, Contributor

Google wants its WebM/VP8 codec to be made a mandatory standard for real-time communications on the web, and has recommended against the use of the H.264 codec. At the moment, the W3C's draft specification dated 12 July 2012 says: "User agents negotiate the codec resolution, bitrate, and other media parameters." In other words: whatever works.

In a post headed Google statement on codecs, aimed at influencing the WebRTC standard, the company says: "Given the ability to deliver a royalty-free platform with no compromises on quality, we see no reason to include mandatory royalty-bearing codecs."

WebRTC (Real Time Communications) is the attempt to build a standard system for web-based audio and video conferencing using HTML5 in the browser, without any plug-ins.

Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, Opera. Microsoft's Internet Explorer and Skype are all expected to support WebRTC. The only doubt concerns support in Apple's Safari, since Apple is following a proprietary route with its own FaceTime system, using H.264. However, WebRTC could presumably be enabled on Apple devices via third-party plug-ins.

Neither Firefox nor Opera supports H.264 directly because it is patented and requires a licence, but these browsers can rely on H.264 codecs shipped as part of Microsoft Windows 7 and Apple's Mac OS X. Where H.264 is not available, Adobe Flash usually provides a fallback. (Apple iPad users apparently don't mind gaping holes in their web pages.)

Although Google has made noises about not supporting H.264 in its Chrome browser, it wouldn't make much difference because Chrome already comes bundled with an integrated Flash plug-in.

The H.264 codec is also the preferred system for video on mobile devices because most if not all modern chipsets include built-in decoding. This is more battery-efficient than decoding highly-compressed H.264 video in software.

Mozilla's chief technology officer Brendan Eich has pointed out in a blog post, Video, Mobile, and the Open Web, that "Android stock browsers (all Android versions), and Chrome on Android 4, all support H.264 from <video>". He adds:

"Google is in my opinion not going to ship mobile browsers this year or next that fail to play H.264 content that Apple plays perfectly. Whatever happens in the very long run, Mozilla can’t wait for such an event. Don’t ask Google why they bought On2 but failed to push WebM to the exclusion of H.264 on Android. The question answers itself."

Mozilla lobbied against H.264, even though it is an open, multi-vendor standard (MPEG4 Part 10), and a mandatory standard for Blu-ray movie playback (AVC).

Eich, like most of us, would prefer a web unencumbered by patents. However, Eich says: "What I do know for certain is this: H.264 is absolutely required right now to compete on mobile. I do not believe that we can reject H.264 content in Firefox on Android or in B2G [Boot2Gecko] and survive the shift to mobile."

Google is heavily involved in WebRTC development, having bought GrandCentral (now Google Voice) for $95 million, Gizmo5 (formerly SIPphone) for $30 million, and Global IP Solutions (GIPS) for $68.2 million. GIPS offered VoiceEngine and VideoEngine (including its own video codec) and offered web-based conferencing services to corporations in competition with Skype and similar VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) services.

Google acquired the VP8 codec by buying On Technologies for $124.6 million, and then made it open source as WebM. It did this in preference to backing the open source Theora, which is actually based on VP3, a 12-year-old On2 codec.

Presumably Google sees making WebM/VP8 support compulsory in WebRTC video chat as a roundabout way of making it more popular for streaming video.

Google has also allowed its Motorola Mobility subsidiary, bought for $12.5 billion, to continue suing both Apple and Microsoft over their use of its standards-essential patents. These are supposed to be licensed on "fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory" (FRAND) terms. However, Motorola is demanding what look like unreasonable fees, and trying to block the sale of products that use H.264, such as the Xbox 360 games console.

Anti-trust bodies may put a stop to this. The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) "has opened a formal probe into whether Google Inc's Motorola Mobility unit is honoring pledges it made to license industry-standard technology for mobile and other devices on fair terms," according to Bloomberg, while the "European Commission [is investigating] Motorola Mobility's suspected abuse of standard-essential patents against Apple and Microsoft," according to FOSSpatents.

Competition authorities only allowed Google to buy Motorola Mobility on the basis that it would not abuse its power. We must hope the presumption that Google wouldn't be evil was not misplaced. 

Find out more about WebRTC:

Google I/O session, WebRTC: Real-time Audio/Video and P2P in HTML5 (video) 

Getting Started With WebRTC by Google's Sam Dutton at HTML5Rocks.com


Editorial standards