Google Chrome Drops H.264 to Push Openness, But Keeps Flash
It’s almost like Google is “half pregnant” with the baby of openness. On Jan. 11, 2011, the company noted in its Chromium Blog entry that Google Chrome would no longer support H.264. The reason? Google wants to create a platform that is entirely built to “enable open innovation.” Yet, Google hasn’t removed the built-in Flash player. That doesn’t sound too open to me. Here’s how Google kludged what could have been the boldest move in browser history:
You can check out the Chromium blog and read through the comments. An unsurprising amount of them are negative, with a good percentage of them pointing out the irony of not removing the Flash player if Google really was going to go all the way with its “openness” routine.
But what’s Google’s beef with H.264? Check out the Wikipedia article on it for the full drama, but here’s the scoop in a nutshell:
To use the H.264 video compression, you’d normally have to pay royalties. But in August of 2010, it was announced that Internet video in the H.264 format would be free to end users and never charged royalties. Sounds great, right? The controversy is that the license terms are updated in five-year blocks, which could mean that in 2015 it’s subject to change.
That hazy use of patented technology with (supposedly) no clear ‘free and open’ horizon is why Google is seemingly ditching the format. Initially, both Google and Apple had agreed that H.264 was the future, going up against Mozilla and Opera, which supported a competing codec of Ogg Theora that had no patent issues. So now is Google all crazy about Theora?
Nope. Google is simultaneously pushing its own WebM/VP8 video codec.
You can imagine the onslaught of video re-encoding that would have to occur to support the widely untested codec. That’s okay, Google noted:
These changes will occur in the next couple months but we are announcing them now to give content publishers and developers using HTML an opportunity to make any necessary changes to their sites.
Maybe it’s easy for Google to re-encode every video on YouTube, but every other site on the web isn’t going to be thrilled. These sites had endorsements from Google and Apple that H.264 was good. That should’ve been a comfortable bet to make on their web media when two industry giants give the thumbs-up. So instead of re-encoding, many sites likely will resort to using Flash-wrapped H.264 players instead of natively supporting H.264 because it’s cheaper. And now Google is inadvertently perpetuating the use of Flash, not “open innovation.” Fail.
And just for reference, here’s a short list of devices that support the playback of H.264 natively: PS3, XBox 360, Android devices, iOS devices, Boxee Box, Google TV and most BluRay players. Video streaming sites like Netflix encode their videos in H.264, too.
Will Google be ripping H.264 support out of Android OS-based devices? If it doesn’t, there’s some serious hypocrisy going down.
Here’s what Google could have done to make some serious ripples in the industry. With Chrome finally attracting huge attention, the company could have dropped Flash and H.264 altogether and went 100 percent open, calling on all browsers to do the same. People still may not have been happy, but Google would truly be making a statement about openness. But with Adobe’s proprietary Flash remaining, its current moves are creating the most botched-up statement one could ever make.
It also makes me wonder about Google’s relationship with Adobe …