29 January 2011

Google Chrome Removes Support For H.264 Format

I would like to weigh in my opinion (in support of Google) with regards to the recent announcement that Google Chrome is dropping support for the proprietary (ie. closed) H.264 video format.

However, Mr Haavard at Opera has written such a good report on the matter that I have decided to reproduce his article in its entirety here.

Enjoy a well-written defense of true Openness.

Is the removal of H.264 from Chrome a step backward for openness?

In a lengthy article at Ars Technica, Peter Bright argues that removing support for a closed standard from Chrome is a step backward for openness.

I disagree strongly with this assertion, and will try to somewhat briefly explain why, and what's wrong with the arguments put forth in the article.

1. "H.264 is an open standard"

Unfortunately, H.264 is patent-encumbered, and you need to pay money to use it. As per the W3C patent policy, this is incompatible with the definition of an open standard, particularly on the web. By the very definition of "open", H.264 cannot possibly be open, because it cannot be used unless you pay up.

2. "VP8 is not an open standard"

That is actually correct. VP8 is a technology with a specification, not a standard. However, Google has granted anyone the right to use it, and makes no claims about patents to restrict its royalty-free use. This means that VP8 is actually a good candidate for being turned into a proper open web standard.

3. "H.264 is free to use under certain circumstances"

Remember that H.264 still costs money. And even if products with a tiny user base may not have to pay right away, you still have to open your wallet at some point if you aim to do something on the web. The MPEG-LA has clevery provided the first shot for "free". Once you are hooked, they can start charging you.

It's called bait and switch.

4. "H.264 support isn't mandated in HTML5"

But it would become another closed de facto standard, just like IE6. And we all remember the damage that did to the web.

5. "Google bundles Flash, so it is being hypocritical"

This is comparing apples and oranges. Flash is a plugin, which Google chose to bundle because there is a lot of Flash content out there. On the other hand, H.264 would be part of the browser itself, and not a mere plugin.

One important thing to keep in mind is that Flash is already ubiquitous. If you want to do any kind of video on the web, you don't have a choice. Flash is needed (and that's assuming that you want to reach more than the comparatively tiny iOS user base). However, the "battle" over HTML5 video is still raging. There is no clear winner, but with Google dropping the closed H.264, it is much more likely that an open format will prevail in the end.

So when Google keeps bundling the Flash plugin, it makes perfect sense. Most video content on the web uses Flash, and that allows Google to continue to support just about all online video until native video support gains a proper foothold. There is no hypocrisy involved here, just pragmatism.

In the end, the question of Google's bundling of Flash is a red herring which takes away the focus from the real issue: Whether native video support in browsers is based on open or closed technologies.

Update: Some will raise iOS as a counter-argument, but it does not hold water. There's a reason why a lot of iDevice owners are resorting to pay for even poor quality video transcoding soluions on the iOS, and that is that they can't access most video sites. The reason iOS gets away with H.264 is basically that YouTube (Google's video service, and the biggest and most important video service on the web) supports it. The vast majority of video sites still require Flash. I understand that some major Apple fans are worried about Google's push for WebM, though. Losing YouTube support would be a major blow to Apple.

6. "H.264 is everywhere, and the web does not exist in a vacuum"

Just because a format is widespread offline does not mean that it is suitable for use on the web. Since the web requires open standards, H.264 is not suitable as the primary format for video on the web, by definition.

And the argument that H.264 is everywhere and everyone will have to handle it does not hold much water, in my opinion. Sites like YouTube will convert and compress videos anyway, so very few are publishing raw H.264 videos straight from your camera, and on to the web.

In other words: The processing will always be there, and instead of re-processing to a slightly more compressed H.264 file for online play, it can be converted to an open format.

7. "H.264 can be used in both Flash and through HTML5 video, ensuring a smooth transition"

As already explained, videos are typically re-encoded or processed in some way anyway. Indeed, most sites offer different bandwidth options and video sizes. They are already converting the video! They could simply convert it to an open format instead.

8. "Firefox users would be able to view H.264 content using Microsoft's plugin"

Notice the word "plugin". It means that we're basically removing HTML5 video, and returning to plugins. All the benefits of native video disappear just like that (and it's only available on Windows 7). On the other hand, I believe it's possible to fairly easily add support for WebM to both Safari and IE by adding it to the list of codecs supported by the system.

9. "The market share of browsers that support H.264 exceeds WebM capable browsers"

Google's online advertising monopoly is working on overdrive to ensure that won't happen. If I am not mistaken, the share of open standards based browsers is growing at the expense of Internet Explorer. Although browser market share is impossible to measure reliably, most of the data seems to confirm that.

10. "Google's decision gives users fewer choices"

Now we are starting get to the core of the issue. And sadly, it is H.264 which takes away choice. While WebM maintains the web as an open platform, H.264 is a closed standard owned by an industry cartel which would ruthlessly stamp out any attempts at getting alternatives up and running.

I also find it puzzling that Google is being accused of giving users fewer choices, while Microsoft and Apple aren't even mentioned. They refuse to support WebM, after all.

11. "VP8 is Google-controlled and proprietary"

I'm not sure if this is the actual claim, but it is my interpretation of it. And it is an incorrect claim. Read the WebM license page for more information. WebM is an open-source project sponsored by Google, and it is freely available because of the license.

The bottom line:

The article aims to show that Google's move is a step backwards for openness. In reality, the article brings up all sorts of things that are not really relevant to this question at all. This, I think, clouds the debate, because the question of openness is actually the most important one!

We can easily test what causes more openness in the context of the web:

  • H.264 is a patent-encumbered and therefore "closed" standard. It is incompatible with the W3C patent policy for an open web. Therefore, promoting H.264 as the primary format for HTML5 video is the opposite of promoting openness.
  • On the other hand, WebM is very much in the spirit of the W3C patent policy. Google grants anyone royalty-free access to the technology. Since WebM is open, it promotes an open web.

Conclusion: By rejecting that which closes the web, while at the same time promoting open technologies, Google is contributing to a more open web, contrary to the claims in the article.

The original blog post can be found at:

1 comment:

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