In a previous article, called Why Adobe and Apple Are Fighting Over the Internet we talked about the battle for HTML 5 and a codec called H.264. In short, HTML 5 is the latest version of code that will be used in website design and development. The benefit to HTML 5 is that it supports animation and video without the need for external plug-ins like Adobe® Flash®.
Related to HTML 5 is a video codec called H.264. A codec describes how a video is encoded and decoded to make high quality video very easy to store and transmit through the web. The H.264 codec is currently used in about two-thirds of Internet video, as well as in Blu-Ray™ discs, digital cameras and digital broadcasting. Many video cards and processors are even specially designed to decode H.264 much more quickly.
However in the latest round of the HTML 5 debate, Google™ is dropping support for the H.264 video codec in its Chrome web browser, in preference for its own WebM video codec (also known as VP8). In some ways, this is an unusual move by Google that many expect to be retracted in the future, but in other ways the decision makes a lot of sense and could help propel wider adoption of newer standards, and create a more open web.
This is really about the <video> tag in HTML 5. In theory this would let browsers support video without a plug-in, however there is no agreement on what video standard the <video> tag should use. Chrome, FireFox and Opera prefer the WebM format and dislike H.264 due to its licensing requirements. Safari and Internet Explorer still prefer H.264.
Since very few sites currently use HTML 5, this will have almost no impact on web users as it stands now, but will have a large impact in the future. As it stands now, most Internet browsers depend on Flash® or Silverlight® to play video anyways, and they will still be prevalent once HTML 5 is standard. The use of plug-ins is how Firefox – which does not support H.264 natively – can still play videos from YouTube™, which uses mostly H.264 video. In the same way, current users of Chrome will continue to depend on such plug-ins to play video.
In the video codec race, H.264 is leading in part because it has extensive hardware support, meaning that processors and video cards (even those in cell phones) are designed to accelerate the video decoding process, which results in faster and higher quality video with less power consumption.
Even though this is expected to change as many chip manufactures are redesigning processors to provide WebM video acceleration as well, these will not be available broadly until later this year, and will require hardware upgrades (which on the 5-year PC purchase cycle will still take a long time before it is regularly implemented).
From the point of view of getting WebM accepted as a standard, this was a good move on the part of Google. However, there is still a lot of work ahead to get WebM accepted as a part of the <video> tag standard.
More than anything this seems to be a ploy to support its own products (open or not) above others. For example, over two-thirds of web video uses the H.264 codec (including most of YouTube, which is owned by Google), with the other third split between other Flv, VP6, Ogg Theora and a few other minor formats.
Google’s initial warning that all websites should immediately convert their video using a new codec is actually grossly impractical, to put it lightly. First, the expectation that all websites should stop using the most popular codec “just because Google said so” is quite unrealistic. Converting all video (millions of hours) to a new codec obviously comes with serious cost and time implications.
Secondly, media platforms like Adobe Flash or Microsoft® Silverlight will continue to support H.264. Moreover, until HTML 5 is widely adopted (still a few years away), browsers will still depend on plug-ins to play all video anyways, so this won’t have implications for some time.
It is easy to understand Google’s support for its own technology, but most criticism comes from the bully approach the company took for dropping support for two-thirds of web video before a viable alternative was readily available.
As Tim Sneath, director of the Windows and Silverlight technical evangelism team stated in an article satirizing the move, that it was the equivalent of demanding that the entire world start speaking Esperanto – a politically and culturally neutral language that was invented last century – and Klingon, the language spoken by the alien race from Star Trek. Both of these are “independent” and “open” languages that have broad adoption by as many as 10,000 speakers. In the same way, Google’s move is very good in theory, but hardly practical in reality.
In one last point, Google promotes the WebM format as being open and free to use. This is because Google owns all the rights to WebM and released the patents into the public domain. Even so there are ongoing legal threats that suggest others may have some claim to the format. For publishers, this means that they must depend on Google’s ongoing commitment to keeping it an open platform, and hope that Google wins the legal challenges which have the potential to place royalties on WebM as well.
In other words, while WebM is great as a codec, and good as a web standard, so are many other standards. Since Google’s motivation clearly is directed towards benefiting its own technology at the expense of Apple, which has placed most of its eggs into the H.264 basket, and other companies on the H.264 side, it is clearly about much more than “creating an open innovation standard.”
But at the very least, this will help push the <video> tag standard debate in a new direction and hopefully lead to some resolution.
What this Means
For content hosting and web development, this will have very big long-term implications but only a very tiny short-term impact. In short, there is no need to re-code any of your video, or change how you currently host video because of Google’s change.
Long term, it may be more requisite for publishers to transition into WebM, or whatever format becomes standard in the <video> tag, but this will be a more natural transition as publishers work to provide multiple video sizes and formats to work on a wider range of connected devices.
For Flash website development, or Silverlight rich Internet application development, this will have zero impact. Silverlight and Flash are easily installed (Chrome comes with Flash embedded, interestingly enough) and both support multiple video codecs, and will continue to do so even after broad HTML 5 adoption (though the need for Flash and Silverlight will be diminished in many instances).