Google has rather nonchalantly dropped a bombshell on the web — future versions of the Chrome browser will no longer support the popular H.264 video codec. Instead Google is throwing its hat in with Firefox and Opera, choosing to support the open, royalty-free WebM codec.
Google says the move is meant to “enable open innovation” on the web by ensuring that web video remains royalty-free. While H.264 is widely supported and free for consumers, sites encoding videos — like YouTube — must pay licensing fees to the MPEG Licensing Association, which holds patents on AVC/H.264
Prior to Google’s announcement, the web video codec battle was evenly split — Firefox and Opera supported the open Ogg and WebM codecs, while Safari and Internet Explorer supported H.264. Google took the egalitarian path and supported all three codecs.
Google’s move away from H.264 makes sense given that Google is already heavily invested in WebM. In fact, the only reason the WebM codec exists is because Google purchased On2, the creators of the VP8 codec. Once Google acquired the underlying code it turned around and released VP8 as the open source WebM project.
There’s been considerable outcry from developers concerned that they now need to support two video codecs to get HTML5 video working on their sites. However, given that Firefox — which has a significantly greater market share than Google’s Chrome browser — was never planning to support the H.264 codec, developers were always going to need to support both codes for their sites to work across browsers.
Google’s decision to drop H.264 from Chrome does raise some questions though. For instance, Android also ships with H.264 and so far Google hasn’t made any announcement regarding the future of H.264 on the Android platform. One of the reasons H.264 has become so popular is that the codec enjoys robust hardware support across devices — whether it’s desktop PCs, mobile devices or set top boxes. While WebM has made some strides in hardware acceleration since it was originally released, it still lags well behind H.264. At least for now it seems that Android most likely needs to continue supporting H.264.
The move also raises questions about YouTube, still the largest video site on the web. Currently the site serves H.264 videos to most browsers, whether through the HTML5 version of the site or using the Flash Player. It seems obvious that Google must be hard at work converting the site to use WebM, but will it continue to support H.264 for those browsers and devices that don’t support the WebM codec? So far Google hasn’t made any announcements regarding YouTube and H.264.
Critics of Google’s decision to drop H.264 support in Chrome point out that Chrome ships with Flash, which, like H.264, is not really an open web technology. Indeed it would seem hypocritical for Google to dump some closed tools while keeping others, but, in Chrome’s defense, Flash is well entrenched in the web and ditching it really isn’t practical. Rather Google’s decision seems to be pragmatic — the company is in a position to take a stand on video codecs and it is doing so before H.264 becomes as entrenched as Flash.
Google did not respond to a request for comment on this article. A Google Spokesperson tells Webmonkey that the announcement is related to "Chrome only and does not affect Android or YouTube." Presumably both will continue to offer H.264 support. As for Flash, the Spokeperson says, the Chrome announcement "is about the importance we place on open technologies being the foundation of the emerging web platform moving forward." In other words, dropping Flash support isn't practical.]