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Innovation

Is Google after an H.264 free lunch?

Since Google announced that it is planning to drop support for the H.264 codec from its Chrome browser (and presumably Chrome OS) the blogosphere has exploded with thoughts, ideas, rants and conspiracy theories about what motive the search giant could have for this move.

Since Google announced that it is planning to drop support for the H.264 codec from its Chrome browser (and presumably Chrome OS) the blogosphere has exploded with thoughts, ideas, rants and conspiracy theories about what motive the search giant could have for this move.

So what does Google want? Let me sum it up for you in two words - Free lunch.

See, this move has nothing to do with open source. Sure, open source makes a great scapegoat, a great excuse, but if this were truly about Google wanting Chrome to be pure, unadulterated open source, the company wouldn't have baked Flash into it for a start.

Is it about YouTube storage, like my colleague Jason Perlow suggests? Well, I do find his argument compelling, but the problem I have with his argument is that is for this to be the reason, Google must have somehow, somewhere dropped the ball and not properly worked out the projected storage demands for YouTube. Google offered YouTube uploaders HD, allowed for different formats, allowed longer videos. If Perlow is right then this was done with no concern for the impact it would have on storage until someone sat down with a pencil and the back of an envelope and calculated projected storage needs for the next few years and instead of coming up with a number, that poor engineer came up with a noise, something like:

"Aaaaarrrrrrrrgggggggggggghhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!"

I dunno, maybe Google dropped the ball, but if that was the case, there's more the company could do to reduce storage demands than cling to an inferior video codec.

Is it about money? Yes, but it's not up-front licensing ... George Ou has the details:

Google which owns the world’s largest free video streaming site YouTube was facing a serious patent bomb from the MPEG-LA patent pool in 2015 when the free licensing terms for free video streaming sites expired.

By threating to switch to the new “WebM” standard which used the VP8 compression technology that Google acquired from ON2 for $106.5 million of Google common stock, it forced the MPEG-LA to promise free streaming licensing terms indefinitely.  The fact that VP8 has its own patent uncertainty and that VP8 is obviously inferior to H.264 is irrelevant because its mere existence constitutes a viable bluff. Considering the cost of patent lawsuits, $106.5M is chump change. And since Microsoft already paid for an H.264 license at the operating system level and they’re willing to extend it to third party web browsers like Mozilla Firefox at no charge to Mozilla, Google can recoup an additional $6.5M a year by letting Microsoft create an H.264 plugin for Chrome.

So Google is after a free lunch. It wants free streaming licensing terms forever, and wants someone else (Microsoft or perhaps Adobe) to pick up the tab for the codec.

This makes a lot of sense, a lot more sense than this being an open source or storage issue.

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