Microsoft Puts H.264 Video Back in Google Chrome, Considers WebM for IE

Microsoft has announced a plug-in for Google’s Chrome web browser that allows Chrome on Windows to play H.264 web video through the HTML5 <video> tag. The new plug-in comes on the heels of Google’s decision to remove H.264 support from Chrome and focus on the company’s competing WebM video codec.

You can grab the new Chrome plugin from Microsoft. Microsoft previously released a similar H.264 plugin for Firefox, which also only supports WebM video.

The video move is the latest sign of a collision between the two tech giants, who now compete directly in search, courtesy of Microsoft’s Bing initiative and mobile, where Google’s Android is taking market share and the new Windows Phone 7 is struggling for a foothold. Google has also launched various cloud-based applications that take aim at Office. This week, the two threw punches over search, with Google claiming Microsoft copies its results, and Microsoft complaining the Google perpetrated a sting worthy of a spy novel.

Now the two are sparring over web video. Google has thrown its weight behind the WebM codec, which the company owns, while Microsoft supports H.264. However, Microsoft says that, provided Google makes some changes, it may be willing to support the WebM codec as well.

While HTML5′s video tag promises a native way to watch video in your browser, video codec support among browsers is divided. Firefox, Opera and Chrome support the WebM codec while Apple’s Safari and Microsoft’s IE9 support H.264. As it stands there is no “it just works” solution, which means most websites still use Flash video players.

Microsoft’s H.264 plug-ins for Firefox and Chrome are part of the company’s attempt to be pragmatic — since Windows includes native support for H.264, users should be able to watch H.264 video even if the browser doesn’t support it. On the other side of the coin, Internet Explorer 9 will be able to play WebM video through a similar third-party plug-in.

However, while Microsoft isn’t including native support for WebM in the next version of IE, it doesn’t appear to totally rule out the idea. As part of the plugin announcement, Dean Hachamovitch, corporate vice president for Internet Explorer, outlines some of Microsoft’s problems with the WebM codec. The main problem is that Microsoft is concerned about WebM’s potential patent risks.

Google insists that it owns all of the patents covering WebM and the VP8 video codec. But the company offers no indemnification for costs incurred should a patent lawsuit arise. That means that anyone distributing WebM/VP8 could be on the hook for any patent-related fees that might come up.

Some have dismissed Microsoft’s patent worries as an example of Microsoft spreading “fear, uncertainty and doubt” about WebM, but Microsoft does have history on its side in this case. As Hachamovitch points out, such patent lawsuits often don’t arise until a technology is in widespread use. So just because no one is suing over WebM now, doesn’t mean they won’t in the future. Hachamovitch cites the JPEG photo compression format, pointing out that JPEG was around for ten years before the first patent lawsuits appeared. Eventually the patents in question were ruled invalid, but not before millions of dollars were spent defending and licensing JPEG.

Of course the same patent threats potentially hang over H.264, but the MPEG-LA consortium — the governing body that oversees the patents surrounding H.264 — provides a kind of legal buffer between H.264 licensees and any lawsuit.

Surprisingly, Hachamovitch says that, if Google is willing to indemnify WebM users against patent lawsuits, “Microsoft is willing to commit that we will never assert any patents on VP8.” Of course that doesn’t mean other companies won’t, but it would be a huge step forward for WebM if Microsoft jumped on the bandwagon. Google did not respond to a request to comment in time for this story.

For now at least Microsoft has chosen a pragmatic approach — plugins. There will be a WebM plugin for Internet Explorer and H.264 plugins for Firefox and Chrome. In the end, Windows users will be able to watch just about any video on the web regardless of which browser they’re using. It might not be an ideal solution, but it is one that, from the user’s point of view, just works.

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