Google’s decision earlier this week to ditch support for the dominant web video codec, H.264, in its Chrome browser unleashed a fair bit of debate around the web. It sounds a bit geeky, but this brewing standards war will likely have a huge impact on the future of web video. Today, Chrome Product Manager Mike Jazayeri published a follow-up blog post going more in greater depth about the company’s reasoning. One thing comes through clearer in this post-it’s all about the patents.
First, what’s this debate all about?
» The Background. A modernized set of standards for the web’s lingua franca, HTML, is currently underway. Once it’s finished, that will be HTML5. The web’s updated language that will include a ‘video’ tag that can be read by browsers directly, eliminating the need for slower plug-ins. But there are two competing standards for what kind of video the ”video’ tag will read. One is the pay-to-play H.264 standard, which is covered by the patents of 10 different companies; anyone making hardware or paid web services has to pay up for those patents. The second is the open-source WebM standard, created with technology purchased last year by Google (NSDQ: GOOG).
As Jayazeri describes in his blog post today, the negotiations over what to use as the “baseline” codec reached an impasse. The makers of the Firefox and Opera browsers refused to support H.264, because it’s patented, while Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) and Microsoft (NSDQ: MSFT) refused to make their browsers not support H.264. (Apple and Microsoft, perhaps not coincidentally, are two of the 29 patent-holders getting paid by when royalties are collected for H.264 devices.)
So in this week’s announcement, Google is picking sides. And it’s upset a lot of folks who have been thrown for a loop because H.264 is already the much more prevalent standard, especially in hardware devices. (For example, practically every mobile phone and video camera is now being made with a chip that has built-in H.264 support.) But Jayazeri argues (and presumably the powers-that-be at Google believe) that the benefits of having an open and unpatented Web outweigh. openness
And the new post makes clear that the argument here is really all about the fact that H.264 is patented. Google acknowledges that right now, it has broader support than the WebM standard, but argues that the danger of a patented Web is too big to not do something about. Jayazeri writes: “To use and distribute H.264, browser and OS vendors, hardware manufacturers, and publishers who charge for content must pay significant royalties-with no guarantee the fees won’t increase in the future. To companies like Google, the license fees may not be material, but to the next great video startup and those in emerging markets these fees stifle innovation.”
So will users of Google Chrome suddenly be shut out of a lot of web video? No, but they’ll have to use a plug-in like Flash or Silverlight. And that’s the source of one of the main prongs of criticism against Google’s move-that it’s hypocritical because Google is still supporting the very proprietary and non-open Flash. But both Google and Mozilla seem to have decided they’ll have to live with Flash for now-just as Apple has-and criticizing the company for not banning all non-open software is a bit disingenuous, as CNET’s Tom Krazit points out.
With the world divided about 65-35 between Safari and Internet Explorer users in the majority and Firefox, Opera and Chrome users on the minority, this standards war raises serious a question. Is this standards war starting an unnecessary religious crusade for a particular format? Or, does the dominant H.264 format bring us all too close to the dangers of a patented, proprietary web that could stifle innovation?
Google clearly thinks the latter, and suggests that the future of the web can’t be entrusted to the companies collecting royalties from the MPEG-LA patent pool. “Our choice was to make a decision today and invest in open technology to move the platform forward, or to accept the status quo of a fragmented platform where the pace of innovation may be clouded by the interests of those collecting royalties,” writes Jayazeri.