So some observers think Google’s move is a swipe at Apple, H.264’s most high-profile supporter and holder of some of the patents licensed through MPEG LA. Google and Apple had been close allies in the past, with Google CEO Eric Schmidt serving on Apple’s board of directors. But in 2009, Schmidt resigned from Apple’s board, and relations between the two companies have grown increasingly frosty, especially now that Android phones are neck and neck with Apple’s iPhones among smart phone buyers.
Why are some people so angry at Google?
The worst crime among tech people is inconsistency. Google claims it is removing support for H.264 from Chrome to support open (read: royalty-free) standards for the Internet. But if that’s true, critics say, why doesn’t Google also remove the Flash player, a much more widely used, and equally proprietary, format that Apple has stridently refused to allow on its iPhones and iPads? Besides the licensing issue, Flash players are said to slow down mobile devices and drain their batteries compared to embedded videos.
Many suspect that Google is simply using Chrome to nudge Web publishers away from H.264 and toward WebM without disrupting access to any content on Android-powered phones (which now outsell Apple’s iPhones by some estimates). Chrome users, who were already tech-savvy enough to install an alternative browser, can switch back to their computer’s default browser to play H.264 videos. An Android phone owner would need to install a second browser.
How will this play out?
It’s not certain. For now, only some Chrome users will notice a difference in how their browsers work on Web pages with video, and only on those pages that use the <video> tag, which are a minority. In the long run, however, Google’s move may prompt Microsoft and Apple to reluctantly add support for WebM. If that happens, video publishers, starting with the large ones who pay license fees to MPEG LA, may have the financial incentive to serve WebM video alongside H.264 until the vast majority of Internet users have browsers that can play WebM clips.
For now, though, Web publishers will have to separately encode and serve WebM clips alongside their existing clips, which are largely encoded in H.264. But that doesn’t make financial sense. Unless Microsoft and Apple buy in, Chrome becomes more widely used, or Google removes H.264 support from its Android phones and stops streaming its YouTube clips in the format, there’s no compelling reason yet for anyone to make the switch to WebM. It’s easier and cheaper to wrap H.264 video in Flash—the opposite of Google’s stated goal. As one journalist, MG Siegler of TechCrunch, concluded, instead of spurring adoption of its royalty-free format, “Google is handing the keys of Web video’s future right back to Flash.”
Hear more from Google at EmTech 2014.