Does Google Dropping H.264 From Chrome Mean They Are Evil?

By now everyone has arguably read that Google is dropping support for H.264 from the Chromium project. Since Chrome is based on the Chromium project, this change will come to Chrome in the next few months as per Google. While I don’t claim any authority on this matter, I  want to simplify and explain what this actually means to you, the most important person on the Internet.

What is H.264?

H.264 is a standard for video compression that is widely accepted and free for consumers, but the broadcasters like YouTube who actually use the compression standard and display the videos have to pay a licensing fee to MPEG Licensing Association. At present pretty all the major websites like Netflix, Hulu, Vimeo and Google’s own YouTube use H.264 to compress videos. Also, most of the consumer hardware devices including Computers, Mobile Phones and MP3 Players include support for optimal H.264 playback.

Holy Smokes it looks important, why does Google want to drop support for it then?

Google says that the web should be open and community driven. The H.264 codec is not. Moving to an open standard will offer the following benefits:

  • Rapid performance improvements in the video encoder and decoder thanks to contributions from dozens of developers across the community
  • Broad adoption by browser, tools, and hardware vendors
  • Independent (yet compatible) implementations that not only bring additional choice for users, publishers, and developers but also foster healthy competition and innovation

So what do they think should be used?

Google has something of their own called WebM which is an open, royalty-free, compression standard designed for the web. It is also supported by Mozilla, Opera and Adobe among others. Google will also support another open video compression standard called Theora.

What about the other browsers?

Here is the list of the popular browsers and the codecs they support. (Thanks GHacks!)

  • Firefox: WebM and Theora
  • Opera: WebM and Theora
  • Internet Explorer 9: H.264
  • Safari: H.264

Wait this is confusing; How do YouTube, Hulu etc work on Firefox now?

Note that this support is only specific to native video playback in HTML5. Most of the video on the web now is displayed using Adobe Flash which supports H.264 playback. Since all the browsers support Flash, you will actually be able to watch H.264 videos like now.

It all looks good, what is the problem here?

There are multiple problems actually.

  • While the publishers will save on the licensing fees in the long-term, they’ll have to re-encode their entire library into a new compression format to keep supporting Google Chrome. This will definitely be a major issues. Google themselves will have to face it but they probably already started working on it.
  • What about all the hardware devices that support H.264? Not many devices in the market are optimized for WebM or Theora playback. It will easily take an year or more to include this support and many manufacturers may not even do it then. Does Google plan to keep multiple copies of videos on YouTube for specific devices?
  • The above also includes Google’s own Android devices. Will they drop support for H.264 too?
  • It’s a major kickback to HTML5 which is being called by many as the future of the web. This needs some explanation.
    Since it’s pretty much impossible to move everything to a new codec standard, the web will have multiple popular video compression standards supported by various groups. Apple and Microsoft support H.264 and Google supports WebM and Theora. Since most websites want to run on most web browsers, the only solution is Adobe Flash. And if Flash stays on, it means HTML 5’s development will be slower. The publishers will have to choose between building in HTML and keeping multiple copies of video or building in Flash which will natively support playback of all video codecs.
    The strange thing here is that Google itself is a major proponent of HTML5.
  • As John Gruber pointed out, if this is to support open innovation and leave behind proprietary, closed standards, why is Google Chrome supporting Adobe Flash? In fact they bundle Adobe Flash along with Chrome.
  • The biggest problem is that does Google think they are allowed to take a decision on behalf on everyone on the Internet? As znu points out on Slashdot, WebM itself infringes many H.264 patents. How is that ok? This is Google manipulating the market entirely for their selfish advantage here, and it’s all the worse because they’re pretending otherwise. And it’s going to be really frustrating watching people fall for it.

It just doesn’t feel like the good old times when Google was simpler. They are getting bigger. They have motives and long-term plans now. Maybe they finally figured out how to be evil.

On a lighter note, you must read this funny take on the Google announcement done by Time Sneath from Microsoft.

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7 Responses to this post

  1. Bandan says:

    Nice article Chirag! I believe there are equally important points on both sides of the coin and I am a little hesitant to say this but you attempted to prioritize one side over the other. The world was just fine with H.264 till now; is it going to be better with it getting dropped from Chrome ? I don't know. But it sure could be worse.

    It's true that H.264 is free for the end-user. (Hell,) MPEG-LA also decided not to charge royalties for Internet Video that is free to the end user for the lifetime of the license (So, Youtube is probably immune to MPEG-LA royalties but I am not sure because Youtube videos are served on pages). But what if MPEG-LA appoints a crackhead tomorrow who decides to issue an addendum to this or voids this for that matter ? The simple thing is that no matter how free H.264 claims to be, it's still patented and unfortunately, in many countries, you are still required to pay a licensing fee to use it any time or any way. MPEG-LA can put it to advantage anytime it wishes. Don't believe me ? Just see what happened to GIF.

    So, let's look at the problems you identified :

    1. "Publishers need to re-encode." Why would they ? As long as Chrome supports flash, publishers don't need to re-encode. Remember, firefox never supported H.264 all along!

    2. "Optimized for WebM/Theora" ? Did you mean a separate co-processor for decoding ? But not many devices have a H.264 decoder either. It's a codec after all. It can still be done in software.

    3. "Support on Android devices" As I mentioned, even if it gets dropped, you can still install a codec! It has to be ported ofcourse.

    4. "HTML5 and H.264" If there is a time to free HTML5 from H.264, the time is now. Anyways, storing two formats of video isn't a big deal for a publisher, really. A lot of websites do it even today.

    5. "H.264 and Flash" You are right about this. And if there's a time to prevent the mistake that the web did with adopting Flash, the time is now! By not doing the same thing with H.264 that is. And thanks to Google for that. One other thing to point out here is that with flash, only Adobe can turn evil. Not with H.264. There are so many companies that claim patents on H.264. If all of them come after Google, they're done.

    6. Google may be unfair in taking a decision on behalf of the users. But I am convinced it's doing its bit in preventing an unwanted patented format off the net. Whether it's doing it to gain some business advantage ? Could be and I tend to ignore it. Whether WebM violates patents on H.264 is ofcourse worth discussing. But I refuse to take the first comment from an open source H.264 encoder 😉

    I am entirely on your side on one thing though. Yes, Google is evil!

    • Chirag says:

      Thanks 🙂

      I absolutely agree with choosing a open codec compared to H.264.

      Since H.264 is widely accepted (even BluRay uses it) most graphics cards these days do decode H.264 natively. Most mobile devices use a codec of course. But think of the huge number of mobile devices (all iOS/Win7/Android) that natively play YouTube using H.264. Since most of them don't support flash users will need to download codec. And frankly it's just means making things difficult. I'd have preferred if Google announced the support of WebM/Theora playback on Android before this announcement.

      Same for publishers. I know they can store multiple formats but it'd be better if Google would switch to one of these on YouTube first and demonstrate the benefits first. Slowly other publishers would've started following the trend.

      I don't know, somehow it feels that Adobe had a strong say in this. It's like they are trying to convey that if your device doesn't support flash, you are missing on a lot of things.

  2. Keemps says:

    It's John Gruber not Andy.

  3. Jimothy says:

    The author of Daring Fireball is John Gruber, not Andy.

  4. Vinod says:

    Hopefully, Google in its capacity can put an end to format wars. An environment with a Google umbrella shielding against patent trolls will foster more innovation.

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