Why WebM Will Raise Costs for YouTube — And Everyone Else

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Google’s decision to kill support for H.264 in its Chrome browser has many scratching their heads and wondering why it would do so. One popular theory going around the blogosphere Wednesday was that Google is switching to its open source WebM/VP8 format as a way to lower costs for YouTube.

The idea is that by consolidating its video file formats, Google could save massive amounts of money on infrastructure costs. (There’s a somewhat related theory that Google will use YouTube as a way to increase adoption of VP8 by moving all of its video assets to the open source format and “forcing” consumers to use supporting browsers.) But despite the move by Chrome, YouTube isn’t going WebM-only anytime soon, which means that supporting the new format will raise its costs, not lower them.

We’ve already discussed how Google’s decision to kick H.264 from its browser will raise costs for regular video publishers, but the same argument holds true for YouTube. Adding a new video format means re-encoding existing files, as well as adding a whole new group of files to store on its servers. YouTube has already begun this process, and nearly all its files are already WebM-compliant.

But in addition to creating a whole new video profile for all of the bajillions of videos it already hosts, YouTube would have to add the VP8 profile to all existing files uploaded. Since YouTube users upload an average of 35 hours of video each minute, that means adding considerable cost on the infrastructure side.

Those costs could be offset, it is argued, if YouTube rationalized the file formats it supports — that is, got rid of H.264 files — which would then free up all the infrastructure and resources currently being taken up by encoding and story those files. There’s just one problem: YouTube would never do that, nor would any rational online video company.

Let’s be clear: YouTube is in the media business, which means that it wants to be in front of the widest audience possible. This is the reason that YouTube has invested considerable time, energy and, most importantly, money to develop mobile applications and mobile web experiences, as well as getting its videos embedded on connected TVs and other devices in the living room. So YouTube would not simply “turn off” its H.264 streams and hope for the best. It would need to keep supporting those legacy files and encodes, simply because it would need to continue serving those files to users who want to see them, in whatever format they are capable of viewing them in.

Perhaps more important than just its desktop footprint, though, is Google’s interest in serving videos to mobile phones and other connected devices. Today, due to H.264 hardware acceleration built into those devices, the YouTube needs to be able to serve H.264-encoded files. That is, if YouTube shut down H.264 streams, it wouldn’t just be cutting off unfortunate desktop users that opted for Safari or hadn’t upgraded to the most recent version of Firefox, it would be shutting itself off from a wide range of devices — including its own Android mobile handsets and Google TV devices — that don’t currently support VP8.

In short, there are many strategic reasons why Google Chrome might have dropped support for H.264, but lowering costs for YouTube isn’t one of them. The decision only gave YouTube, just like everyone else, more complexity to worry about.

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