Chrome Dropping H.264 Support Is Irrelevant — Here’s Why

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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.

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