Google (NSDQ: GOOG) has essentially declared war against the web’s dominant video format, announcing in a blog post today that Chrome will phase out support for the H.264 video codec that encodes most video online. Instead, Chrome, which now controls 10 percent of the browser market worlwide, will only support two open video formats-Google’s own WebM format, which launched last year, and Theora, another open-source codec. This seems to confirm that the web’s “codec wars” are in full effect and could indicate that Google has a problem with the royalties being charged by MPEG-LA, the organization that administers the patent pool for H.264 codec.
Codecs are the programs that encode or decode any digital data stream, such as digital video. The dominant web video codec, by far, is H.264, which is a proprietary, patented format. The patents that cover H.264 are administered by MPEG-LA, a patent licensing group that collects the royalties for any devices and services that use the H.264 codec and divides it up to all the companies and organizations that own relevant patents. H.264 support is hard-wired into most video cameras and modern mobile phones, as well as devices like DVD players.
MPEG-LA only charges for hardware devices that use the format, and non-free web use. The group recently promised that the standard will remain royalty-free for web sites that don’t charge until 2015, but-as open-source advocates point out-there’s nothing to stop it from charging at that time, and it will be much more lucrative once the H.264 format is dominant online.
Of the four most popular internet browsers, only two, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer and Apple’s Safari, will now have built-in H.264 support. Firefox only supports the open-source Theora format, although nearly all Firefox users use Flash to watch some video.
Unsurprisingly, not everyone is happy. CNET quotes SmugMug CEO Don MacAskill, who complains that the open-source WebM format just hasn’t caught on enough for him to blow off users coming to his site who need H.264 support. MacAskill tweeted today: “Bottom line: Much more expensive to build video on the Web, and much worse user experience. And only *Adobe* wins… I want WebM. Badly. But I need time for hardware penetration to happen… This means the cheapest way to develop video on the Web is to use Flash primarily. Before, we could do HTML5 with Flash fallback.”