Last week, Google stirred up controversy with a low-key announcement: in the near future, it would drop support for a widely used video format in its Chrome Web browser. Here’s a primer on what Google is doing, why it’s doing it, and how it will affect you.
What exactly did Google do?
Last Tuesday, the company announced on the blog for its Chrome Web browser that it plans to discontinue built-in support for the H.264 video format, which is used by many Web publishers. Google said that instead, it would adopt the free-to-use WebM, a multimedia format that Google has largely developed and funded itself.
How will this affect you?
It probably won’t, unless you’re one of the roughly one in 10 people who use the Chrome browser. Even then, you might not notice. What’ll happen is that video clips embedded in Web pages using the new HTML <video> tag—part of the emerging HTML5 standard—won’t play if they’re encoded in H.264.
Today, most Web video is served not via a <video> tag, but through Adobe’s Flash player, which Google bundles with Chrome. So most video sites won’t look any different. It’s also possible to serve H.264 video using Flash.
Google has announced forthcoming WebM plug-ins for Microsoft’s Internet Explorer and Apple’s Safari. It’s a given that Firefox will also play WebM videos. Several major chipmakers, including AMD, ARM, and Broadcom, have pledged to support the format, as has Adobe for its Flash player. But without WebM being available by default in Internet Explorer, one Microsoft evangelist likened Google’s move to throwing its weight behind Esperanto. In response, Google has pledged to supply browser plug-ins for Internet Explorer and Safari that will enable them to automatically play WebM video.
Eventually, engineers could build downloadable add-ons for Chrome that would enable it to play H.264, circumventing Google’s move altogether. So for now, Google’s move won’t have much of an effect. And importantly, if you have a Google-powered Android phone, nothing will change on your device.
Unlike Apple’s refusal to support Flash players on its iPhones and iPads, Google’s removal of H.264 support from Chrome will be much less high-profile. Google’s massive YouTube site will still stream video in H.264 (except for users who click a button to opt to use WebM). “That Chrome has dropped H.264 is less important than YouTube [dropping it],” notes Informa analyst Andrew Ladbrook.
In that case, why is Google doing this?
The H.264 format is commercially licensed by an organization called MPEG LA. Companies that make video software and hardware pay license fees to MPEG LA in order to build H.264 support into their products.
Google’s stated aim is to shift Web video away from H.264 and toward WebM, in order to drive the Internet toward a royalty-free standard over which Google would have a large influence.
Interestingly, MPEG LA’s members include Microsoft and Apple, which are pushing for H.264 to be used as the standard format for the <video> tag in HTML5. “Microsoft had announced that it was firmly backing HTML5 and H.264 as the codec of choice for the <video> element,” says Ladbrook.
There’s already another royalty-free video format, Ogg Theora, supported by Mozilla’s Firefox and other browser makers. But Microsoft and Apple have refused to build in support for it, and so far have not announced support for WebM. And Steve Jobs has written that he’s concerned that Ogg Theora will invite patent lawsuits from other companies, which would undermine the point of using it.