Chrome Drops H.264: Good, Bad or Indifferent?

12 January 2011 by Matthew Gertner - Category: Rants and Ruminations

The announcement by Google that they will be dropping support for the H.264 video codec from their Chrome browser pivots nicely off my (fairly) recent posts about the problems with web standards. There has been much discussion in the wake of the announcement about the merits of open versus proprietary technologies. Some have accused Google of hypocrisy since they bundle the quintessentially proprietary Flash plugin with Chrome. On the other hand, as Robert Accettura points out, Flash could serve as a trojan horse to get WebM (Google’s royalty-free H.264 alternative) into browsers that don’t support it natively. This could turn out to be a vital consideration since market share will play a key role in guiding publisher’s decisions about which codecs to support. It’s nice to see open standards advocates seeing the light when it comes to the potential of Flash and browser plug-ins in general to smooth adoption of new technologies.

What I haven’t seen discussed quite as much are two other relevant topics. The first is the impact of Google’s decision on end users. Call me unprincipled, but all I really care about is whether a video I want to watch will play on my desktop computers and mobiles devices (which my girlfriend has taken to referring to collectively as “iCrap”). From this perspective, I couldn’t imagine a better outcome than having all video on the web switch to H.264. It’s technologically state-of-the-art, works on my Apple devices (see previous parenthetical) and has broad support for hardware acceleration. And while Robert also points out in the aforementioned post that it isn’t royalty-free for commercial use, I don’t watch a heck of a lot of paid video on the web, and when I do (as is the case for NFL games, for example), I doubt the royalties would have a measurable impact on what I pay.

For me to prefer WebM (again from the perspective of a purely self-interested web user who doesn’t care about anything but whether he can watch poodles exercising on his cell phone), it would have to work on iOS, be as fast as H.264 and be supported at least as widely by publishers . The rub is that this scenario is never going to happen unless Google, Mozilla and company force the issue by refusing to support H.264. And it’s hard to blame them considering how much of a bully Apple is being on the other side of the fence.

The other topic that deserves airing is the role that patents play in driving innovation. I’m as frustrated as the next guy by the proliferation of spurious and obvious patents, particularly in the software realm, that seem to do more to stifle progress than motivate inventors. At the same time, patents still have a legitimate purpose of which H.264 is arguably a fine exemplar. It’s probably true (though unprovable) that video codecs would be less advanced today without the promise of potential profits for those who create them. On the other hand, MPEG LA (the body that licenses H.264-related patents) would probably not have extended the deadline for free licensing (first through 2015 and then indefinitely) without the threat of someone doing exactly what Google has just done.

It would be too cynical to see Google’s move simply as a shot across the bow of arch-enemy Apple. But it’s too naive to see it as an altruistic gesture to promote the cause of openness on the web. It is likely to make life harder, not easier, for both end users and publishers, while also maintaining pressure on MPEG LA and its ilk to offer reasonable licensing terms that include royalty-free non-commercial use. Such is the complex dance of intertwining interests and competitive pressures that make up the world of web standards. If past experience is any guide, a new codec will emerge that makes the current lot obsolete long before this drama has finished playing out in the market.


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COMMENTS
  • http://www.rushyo.com Danny Moules

    “It is likely to make life harder, not easier, for both end users [...]”

    You’ve only given an anecdote. Personally, from my perspective, this can only improve my web browsing experience. H.264 support has stifled a lot of innovation and I’m annoyed, as a user, at seeing potentially good concepts destroyed by the inability to justify it against the looming threat of court action. As a Linux user, as a Windows user, as a Firefox user, as a Chrome user – this is a good thing(tm) because I will be able to see new video technologies.

    Apple’s customers chose to be locked into this kind of nonsense. It’s why many other consumers choose not to buy Apple products.

    It is a very important part of what makes Mozilla + Firefox stronger propositions to users.

    It is a very tangible thing. Those who choose Apple are surely aware of the consequences by now. This is what a ‘closed’ ethic results in. Buying into that has consequences, even if the short term gains are significant.

  • http://Website Funtomas

    Looks great. What I’m worrying though is MS to come up with Silverlight support for WebM first. That would require users of IE (lots of them) to install this MS’s very own plugin, which has been MS’s long time desire.

  • http://www.rushyo.com Danny Moules

    And before anyone suggests that I’m veering into anti-competitive.. the reality is that Apple’s offering is significantly superior enough to the competition in many areas that in spite of that closed nature of their offering and the issues that implies, they still offer good value through high quality products (or, at least, the perception thereof). As long as they continue to do that, they will still succeed.

    But that doesn’t take away from the fact that users are essentially (if you can excuse the gross exaggeration) selling their soul for the shiny stuff. Then complaining when their soul goes walkies. Go figure.

  • http://www.salsitasoft.com/ Matthew Gertner

    Danny,

    What I think is missing from this perspective is that Apple is able to deliver a superior offering to a large degree because it is closed. This is another piece of the complex standards dance. It’s a lot harder to be open and provide a good experience for non-tech users.

  • http://Website tom

    “It’s probably true (though unprovable) that video codecs would be less advanced today without the promise of potential profits for those who create them. ”

    are you presuming that patents are the only way for codec creators to be promised potential profits?

    that sounds even more unprovable..

  • http://THISISNOTAFREAKINGWEBSITE!!! Rammy

    It’s all very simple and easy: Apple is crap. Nobody cares about them. Chrome is crap. Nobody who’s not a complete geek uses it out of choice. And H264 is crap, it’s just that people don’t know it.

    Long live openness, long live the web!

    Seriously? iPhone? Who gives a damn? iPhone users buy a new one every week, so by the time HTML5 video becomes a standard, all their iPhones and iPads will have turned into iDuhs and nobody will use them anymore. Besides, Apple will make money if people need to buy yet another new iMdaft because of WebM support (which they won’t, because software updates will do that).

  • http://Website Simon

    Regarding impact on users, remember that H.264 was never supported by Firefox, so dropping it from Chrome doesn’t really change anything. It just brings things a little closer to converging on *one* common format.

  • http://Website Robert O’Callahan

    “It’s probably true (though unprovable) that video codecs would be less advanced today without the promise of potential profits for those who create them.”

    What evidence do you have for that?

    The software industry thrived for a long time without patent protection. That is evidence that software patents are not necessary.

    A lot of research has been done to try to identify a link between patents and innovation, and basically no link has been found:
    http://eupat.ffii.org/vreji/minra/sisku/

  • http://www.salsitasoft.com/ Matthew Gertner

    Evidence? In a blog post?

    In all seriousness, I believe in general that patents should not be granted for software. The value of most software is in the implementation and not in some brilliant innovation that could be easily imitated if not granted special protection.

    Codecs strike me as a bit different and closer to a scientific discovery worthy of patent protection. It is non-trivial to develop a codec that provides superior metrics to existing technology in terms of compression ratio, speed of encoding, speed of decoding, etc. Once developed, however, it can easily be imitated. I don’t see why this area wouldn’t benefit from coverage by the patent system although it should, naturally, be subject to the same tests of obviousness, novelty and utility as any other innovation (and it’s unfortunately not clear that patent offices are always qualified to make this distinction).

  • http://Website cuz84d

    Well, if you must read user reaction to this, you might want to read through all the hundreds of back and forth comments against it and for it.. mostly against it by creators of content (though not smart enough to avoid fees) and for it by open thinkers..

    http://www.engadget.com/2011/01/11/google-will-drop-h-264-support-from-chrome-herd-the-masses-towa/#disqus_thread

  • http://Website njn

    “I don’t watch a heck of a lot of paid video on the web, and when I do (as is the case for NFL games, for example), I doubt the royalties would have a measurable impact on what I pay.”

    Any device you buy with H.264 hardware support will be more expensive due to MPEG LA licensing fees built into the price.

  • http://Website Ed

    Software Patents, whether you like it or not, is here to stay for a foreseeable period of time.

    “are you presuming that patents are the only way for codec creators to be promised potential profits? ”

    Yes, and that is exactly the world works. Everyone needs money, everyone wants money. To be precise, it is not promised, but guarantees that once what they invent is good, they will get what they deserved.

    Mobile is the future of Computing. People are already spending more time on their Smartphone then their Computer. This is happening in areas such as Japan and Korea. Where Networks and Mobile tech is many years ahead of US and EU.

    Hardware Acceleration will be the key. And no matter all the BS you read on internet. WebM Chips announced today will take at least 12 months before it is shipped as a final product. So there will be NO WebM HW Acceleration for another year, that is another 20 – 50 Million Smartphone without it.

    And Consider there are 100s of millions of Smartphone today that can play H.264 with literally 0 percent CPU usage.

    I always wonder why Google just didn’t spend 150 Million to buy up all those patents for Web Uses. That will be the best for Users.

  • http://www.rushyo.com Danny Moules

    “Evidence? In a blog post?”

    Is that such a strange concept? o.O Assertions need facts – otherwise they’re… well… bullshit. Blog or otherwise.

    “Yes, and that is exactly the world works. Everyone needs money, everyone wants money.”

    Mozilla? FSF? EFF? This statement is not born out of evidence/reality.

    “What I think is missing from this perspective is that Apple is able to deliver a superior offering to a large degree because it is closed.”

    Evidence for this? Is Firefox a mediocre offering compared to closed alternatives? No.

  • http://www.salsitasoft.com/ Matthew Gertner

    “Is that such a strange concept? o.O Assertions need facts – otherwise they’re… well… bullshit. Blog or otherwise.”

    Sorry if my sarcasm wasn’t obvious enough.

    “Evidence for this? Is Firefox a mediocre offering compared to closed alternatives? No.”

    I think there’s a strong case to be made that it is much easier to provide a good user experience in closed software. Firefox is a notable exception to be sure. I’m planning to write a full post about this.

  • http://Website Dave

    @Ed, you may be right that WebM hardware announced today would take a year to be in consumers hands, but Tegra2 (and probably other hardware from the long list of manufacturers who promised support about a year ago) is arriving this month.

    I think the first released product will be the Dell Streak 7. The Tegra2 is the reference platform for Android Honeycomb so basically all Android tablets will have hardware support for both encode and decode.

    The Motorola Atrix phone (which perhaps not coincidentally uses a Firefox based webtop if you plug it into a screen via HDMI) is also based on this chipset.

  • http://anti-vigilante.blogspot.com Anti Vigilante

    “I think there’s a strong case to be made that it is much easier to provide a good user experience in closed software.”

    Replace closed with quality and I’ll put away the ten foot pole. Internet Explorer inflates web development cost likely 3x.