My Thoughts on Google's WebM Decision

Yesterday, Google made an announcement that they were going to drop H.264 support from their Chrome browser. It’s gotten a lot of reaction online, and for good reason, it’s a big decision. It makes Google the third of the big five browser makers to take a stand for open-standards are refuse to distribute the H.264 decoder, the other two being Opera and Mozilla, boht of whom have never supported H.264 in their browsers. Of course, the two that still support H.264 are Safari and Internet Explorer, and on our sites, that’s at least 45-55% of our traffic, and we have an abnormal skew towards Firefox, I suspect.

I believe strongly in Open Standards, which is why I support Google’s move here. While the MPEG-LA won’t charge me directly for a decoder, or for content I post online, I’m still having to pay for it at some level. H.264 in Firefox would limit Linux distributions ability to distribute Firefox, and it could potentially lead Mozilla to violate the GPL licensing on Firefox. Plus, it would cost Mozilla million of dollars. Theora, based on VP3, has been around for near a decade, and WebM, based on VP8, has Google’s own backing. Incidentally, both are supported by Firefox, Chrome and Opera already. And both are available royalty free for any usage.

While I support Google in this move, I am not naïve enough to believe that they are doing it for the common good. Removing H.264 removes the licensing they are needing to do currently for Chrome and Android, and potentially YouTube. Not supporting H.264 can potentially save Google a lot of money, especially if they do a simple video editor embedded into YouTube and available on Android (both of which I guarantee are coming). Plus, as hardware decoders for WebM become available, as I suspect they will in the next several months, Google can start moving away from H.264 on mobile, and start making more and more of their content on YouTube not available to H.264 only devices.

And Mobile is where this battle is really focused. Even if this WebM issue doesn’t break the back of their competition in Mobile (WebM decoders can be written and integrated into future software updates), it will give them a head-start for a while, and that may well help them dramatically.

Most content online is already H.264 as well, since most video distributed via Flash (by far the most common transport), is H.264 encoded. Content providers are unlikely to want to re-encode their media to support this new format, and that (understandable) reluctance, stands to entrench Flash even more. Which is sad. This may not end up being the year we finally get away from Flash for video.

Ultimately, this whole kerfuffle is the fault, in my opinion, of the W3C. They didn’t have the browsers interface with the OS to use the OSes decoding frameworks, most likely at the request of the content publishers who didn’t want to have to guess at OS support for their media. But they also didn’t give a minimum set of codecs that the Video and Audio tags must support to be complete. There was a lot of fighting at the time, with Apple in particular being hard behind H.264 (because of Hardware decoders in iOS devices), and Mozilla and others were strongly opposed. I understand why the W3C refused to take a stand, they couldn’t and still move forward with standardizing HTML5. But it is a failure that lead directly to the situation we have today.

Links: * WebM * W3C * HTML5 Video