16 Comments

Summary:

Dropping H.264 may be beneficial for Google in several ways, but the move will have little effect on the broader online video market. Ubiquitous Flash usage and lack of hardware support means WebM has a long way to go before it’s a viable alternative to H.264.

on2videothumb2

The Google Chrome team recently announced it would drop support for the H.264 video codec. Dropping H.264 is beneficial for Google in several ways: It may help Google’s WebM format gain additional traction in the market and solidifies Google’s stance as a supporter of open media formats in the WebM versus H264 debate, as most of Google’s other properties (including YouTube) still support H264.

In spite of all the comments about this announcement, most people seem to gloss over the practical irrelevance of this announcement. There’s a short, simple reason for this.

Flash

Suppose Internet Explorer 9 ships tomorrow and in the middle of the night, the IE team abandons H.264 and ships the browser with WebM instead. Next, suppose every single Internet Explorer installation out there is instantly updated to v9, making WebM support widespread.

Nothing would change. Why? Because all video watched on the desktop is played through Flash, and Flash isn’t going away any time soon.

Publishers currently cannot move from Flash to HTML5, because HTML5 lacks vital technologies like adaptive streaming (for long-form and live content), content protection (for premium content) and playback locking (for advertising). On top of that, today’s entire online video ecosystem (including ingestion, transcoding, advertising, analytics, viral sharing, etc.) is Flash-based. Both obstacles will be overcome in time, but this will be a slow process of incremental technological advances.

To force a transition, some bloggers have suggested Chrome should drop support for Flash. This definitely won’t happen. Flash is absolutely vital to the web. In addition to video, there are applications like advertising — a $25 billion industry — and gaming (Farmville!) that fully depend on it. Any browser dropping Flash would instantly get dropped by both publishers and users in turn.

In sum, desktop browsers are stuck with Flash, and publishers will simply continue to use Flash. As the migration to HTML5 starts to happen, publishers will leverage Flash in browsers that do not support their video format of choice (be it H264 or WebM). Video platforms like Brightcove and video players like the JW Player facilitate such functionalities today.

As it pertains to WebM/H.264, desktop browsers will not move the needle either way. But something else will.

Devices

Devices — such as smartphones, tablets and set-top boxes — do not have a history of supporting Flash, and many will choose not to, as Apple has decided for its iOS mobile operating system. On devices where Flash is supported, CPU limitations will make it impossible to play video using software-based decoding. This means that even Flash will be limited by whatever video codecs the devices support in hardware. In other words: Flash cannot be used as a fallback for unsupported codecs as it is today for desktop browsers.

The choices device vendors make will have the greatest impact on the adoption of WebM. Publishers will be forced to choose between publishing their videos in whichever formats are natively supported on the most popular devices, or choose not to support certain platforms. While it’s still possible to distribute your content without worrying too much about the discrepancy between the platforms, the incredible growth of the smartphone, tablet and set-top market will soon take that option off of the table.

That said, the odds are against WebM for now. H.264 is available on nearly every phone, tablet and set-top out there, while WebM isn’t available on any devices. Only after the launch of WebM hardware decoding can we expect to see announcements that can influence the uptake of WebM versus H.264. But who will support WebM decoding? How good will it be compared to H264? And who — besides Google — will dare drop H.264 decoding support?

Only after the various device vendors have picked their side — and users have picked their devices! — can we reevaluate. Until then, announcements like the one made by the Chrome team will only be symbolic in value.

Jeroen Wijering is a co-founder of LongTail Video and the creator of the JW Player, the world’s most popular video player for websites. Launched in 2005, the JW Player is active on over 1.5 million sites, including such WhiteHouse.gov, IMDB, Cisco, NASA, Sony PlayStation and Oscars.org. In addition, Jeroen has developed several other projects including Sync.nl, an online magazine for entrepreneurs and professionals as well as a media-hosting service called Bits on the Run. Jeroen graduated from the Design Academy Eindhoven, with honors.

Related content on GigaOM Pro: (subscription required)

  1. Sorry to say this is not accurate. Apple supports HTTP adaptive streaming with HTML5, and I believe MS does as well (not sure on that point). Google just introduced adaptive streaming support along with content protection measures for video with Honeycomb. You also left out the fact that MS announced it will support h.264 in Firefox and Chrome via plugin. That *really* leaves WebM out in the cold. I agree with most of your conclusions but I think if anything you are overly optimistic about WebM. At this point, it is unlikely to get any traction. It’s a bizarre move by Google that I have trouble seeing any reason for… unless they know something about the h.264 patent situation that they’re not saying… or maybe they just don’t want to get sued.

    Share
    1. I might be a bit too optimistic about WebM indeed, but at the same time it would be good to have free baseline codec on the web. Hopefully it’s not too wishful thinking. As I said though, there’s still much to be done for WebM.

      Apple’s HLS is indeed something that works closely with HTML5, but it is not HTML5. It’s only supported on Apple devices. And I’m not aware of any adaptive streaming support in either WinPho7 (they don’t even support a plain tag) or Android 3.0. Do you have links to pages that make these statements?

      Share
  2. “In addition to video, there are applications like advertising — a $25 billion industry — and gaming (Farmville!) that fully depend on it.”

    Why can’t Flash be replaced with HTML5 because of these?

    Share
  3. I’d like to think that 7 Million iPADs, 16 Million iPhones, 1 Million Apple TVs, and 10 Million iPOD Touches sold just last quarter pretty much makes anything Google irrelevant.

    And the total is over 160 Million iOS devices.

    Share
  4. Also using H.264: all blue-ray players, DSLR and digital cameras, DVB broadcasting (Freeview for us UK’ites), AVCHD in video cameras and CCTV. WebM isn’t even fully specced at the moment. Given the massive amount of video already in H.264 and the amount of devices which produce or use H.264 and the amount of money people have invested in H.264 one has to wonder if Google is doing anybody but themselves and a few true believers any good. It’s not as if people were crying out for some alternative codec in 2010.

    Given the disincentive for almost anyone besides true believers to move to WebM it seems that Google has simply made Flash, a proprietary codec which burns through CPU cycles, a must have translation codec. It strikes me that Google did this more to upset Apple than to try to improve the video experience of users like me.

    Share
  5. Flash is dead, stop thinking that Adobe is going to make it work on mobile. They failed and Adobe will continue to fail unless it comes out new product. CS5 is over priced and not worth the price.

    I can say the same for Chrome, its a browser, how boring is Google. The best this multi billion group can do is make another browser. They can’t even make Flash work.

    The harsh reality, both of these companies on based on the passed, no innovation here!

    Share
  6. Hey Jeroen, how much did Adobe pay you to promote their FUD?

    Share
  7. Of course it’s symbolic. But it carries the threat that Google might switch YouTube – owned by Google – to WebM/Flash instead of H.264/Flash.

    I think Google can leverage YouTube – Google controls 50% of online video, or more on that alone, and Google could in theory overnight flip a switch and make it all WebM – desktop users would still use Flash so they wouldn’t notice the difference; mobile users would not be able to see it unless they have WebM. There’s plenty of options – a gradual switchover within 2 years for example – would give Google time to do the actual encoding which is no trivial task. And it would put the squeeze on iOS to support WebM.

    I am not sure Google is concerned about H.264 patents so much – after all they have plenty of cash to pay any license fees. But I think they might use it to give Android a boost over iOS. If Google aims for Android adoption then they’ll also entice hardware makers to produce hardware decoders for WebM. It’s a bit of a long term play and it will be interesting to see if Google can pull it off – we’re talking 5 years here.

    This is a chess game between Google and Apple, with Adobe and Microsoft on the sidelines. I don’t think anyone of these players think about desktops right now – it’s all about mobile: Tablets and phones. That’s where all the potential is, and where all the growth is.

    Share
    1. I see the “Youtube switch” argument a lot, but I don’t really buy it. If Google flips the switch on Youtube, the one company that will feel most pain is Youtube itself. All video advertising in the world is Flash and all non-desktop devices do only H264. Youtube would be left without revenue and without device penetration.

      Also, Youtube is not as sticky as a Facebook or Twitter. When Youtube puts in effect changes that will make it less interesting (like not working on mobile devices), people might switch to sites like Facebook and Vimeo for their uploads.

      That’s not to say Google is a smart company and Youtube is a huge asset. I’m sure they will find ways to push adoption of WebM, but it won’t be an overnight switch. Let’s first wait and see what happens in the areas of WebM hardware support and Flash VP8 support.

      Share
  8. I haven’t gone to the extent of de-friending the people who invite me to Farmville, Fishville, etc., but I’ve turned down every one of their invitations on two grounds: (1) I don’t want Facebook apps getting full access to the information I have marked “friends only” and (2) I refuse play Flash games.

    I have a Flash blocker for Camino, ClicktoFlash for Safari and get an increasing amount of information from Twitter and iOS apps. Most video worth watching is available in an iOS compatible format. Paid premium content can be locked using paid apps, but I don’t pay for video on the internet anyway.

    As for Flash based advertising and Flash based website navigation I have just three characters: die

    Any site that makes me enable Flash just to view their content is a site that doesn’t want my business. As a consumer my voice is my wallet and I let it speak loud and clear.

    h.264 is an efficient format that yields nice looking results. If WebM can deliver the same quality with the same efficiency then it wouldn’t be the end of the world to have a gradual switch. It took years for h.264 to become entrenched so it would take years to switch everyone to WebM. From what I’ve heard, however, WebM yields slightly poorer results so it looks like a backwards step that only benefits Google and Mozilla. Not many backward steps ever succeed.

    Share
  9. Nothing in this post convinces anyone that Flash is here to stay.

    Flash is on the way out. In two years it will be a relic.

    Share
  10. Things are a bit more complex that they seem. Google can’t include h.264 decoding in Chrome for the same reasons Mozilla can’t: it breaks its “open-sourceness”. Certainly, it can be introduced back via the host OS’ multimedia architecture, but then that’s something not all OSes can do because of licensing reasons.

    Also, h.264 can’t become the default HTML5 video codec, anyway, because patent-encumbered technologies aren’t allowed in the standard. At most it can become supported, though not required.

    WebM is being proposed as a royaltie-free baseline video codec. My interpretation is that WebM ought to be a fallback codec, so systems that won’t admit h.264 or others because of their license issues (that means all Linuxes, for a start) can play video content, anyway. Given that the h.264 license imposes severe restrictions in distribution, and the conditiions are to change in the future, a by-default royaltie-free codec would be in our best interests. Google is favoring that by converting Youtube’s library to WebM too, and they say they don’t intend to delete their h.264 content at all.

    (The interesting thing to see happen would be Adobe integrating WebM in Flash, as they are the ones paying the h.264 royalties Flash video incurs)

    Share

Comments have been disabled for this post