Google announced last week that forthcoming versions of its increasingly popular Chrome browser would drop support for the patent-entangled H.264 video codec, potentially making HTML5 more open and available, but also challenging competitors like Apple, which is closely tied to H.264.
But in order for browsers to support HTML5, they need to include a video codec, which is a program that allows videos to be encoded and played back. The most popular codec currently used on the web is H.264, which is behind file types like mp4 and m4v, but the patents associated with H.264 are held by a group of 29 investors, including Apple. This group already charges some companies royalties for using the H.264 codec, and has effectively forced independent browser makers Mozilla and Opera to look elsewhere for HTML5 video support.
In place of H.264, Chrome will continue to support WebM, the open source video codec it birthed when it irrevocably released its VP-8 video compression patents last year — having purchased that technology earlier in 2010 — and Theora, which is another open source video codec.
Google's announcement and the growing popularity of its Chrome web browser provides a much needed boost to open source video codecs, and should — in the long run — accelerate HTML5 video's use and expansion.
"The web’s open and community-driven development model is a key factor in its rapid evolution and ubiquitous adoption. The WebM Project was launched last year to bring an open, world-class video codec to the web," wrote Google Product Manager Mike Jazayeri on the Chromium blog.
"We expect even more rapid innovation in the web media platform in the coming year and are focusing our investments in those technologies that are developed and licensed based on open web principles," Jazayeri wrote. "To that end, we are changing Chrome’s HTML5
<video> support to make it consistent with the codecs already supported by the open Chromium project. Specifically, we are supporting the WebM (VP8) and Theora video codecs, and will consider adding support for other high-quality open codecs in the future. Though H.264 plays an important role in video, as our goal is to enable open innovation, support for the codec will be removed and our resources directed towards completely open codec technologies."
Preparing for War and the Court of Public Opinion
Google's decision to cut H.264 from Chrome's HTML5 video support has generally generated three sorts of responses.
The masses seem to be unmoved. Pundits have hailed Google's decision as a sort of web video Armageddon that will start a war between Google and Apple. And at least some savvy web users are happy about the change.
For example, influential Mashable writer Ben Parr seemed to accuse Google of starting an unnecessary web video fight in his editorial, "Why the Future of Online Video Is In Serious Trouble." But instead of getting a stream of comments supporting Parr's position — which would have been typical of his posts — comments generally seemed to support Google's move toward more open solutions.
"Google is making the right choice. They are forcing hands and driving open source/web standards," wrote Will Merydith, a web entrepreneur, journalist, and photographer, in his response to Parr's post.
Regardless of one's opinion about Google's move or open source video, there will be ramifications for website owners, who for now at least will need to support two or more video codecs to ensure that HTML5 videos will play regardless of whether a site visitor is using Microsoft's Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox, Opera, Google Chrome, or Apple's Safari.