Monday, January 17, 2011

Google Drops H.264 in Chrome; What Does it Mean?

Google Drops H.264 in Chrome; What Does it Mean?


You must have read recently that Google is dropping support for H.264 codec in their web browser Chrome. While initially this might not seem like a big deal it could have some serious implication, whether or not you use Chrome. If you have no idea what we are talking about, read on to find out.
What Google did?

Google said they wanted to enable open innovation, and therefore are dropping support for the proprietary H.264 video codec from Chrome and going with the open source WebM (VP8) and Theora formats. This means that in future, when browsers are supposed to play HTML5 videos without the need of proprietary codecs, Chrome will not be able to play videos encoded with H.264.
They also said they were doing this because they wanted to have a common format that everyone used. Since Mozilla and Opera don't support H.264 - as they don't want to pay the licensing fee - they felt it was better to go with the open source WebM instead of the proprietary H.264. Everyone who doesn't use it currently (read: Microsoft and Apple) can adopt it for free and everyone will support a common format and everything will be hunky dory. If only that was true.
What this means?

Even though Google has dropped support for H.264, all the millions of H.264 videos won't disappear overnight (H.264 is the most widely used codec on the Internet for streaming videos). This means that when a Chrome user encounters an HTML5 video encoded in H.264 in future, which he will, he will be forced to watch it through the Flash player.
On the other hand, if every video publisher on the Internet decides to go with Google, they will have to encode all their videos twice, once in H.264 and the other in WebM, something that they won't be willing to do.
Why this sucks?

WebM is technically an inferior format compared to H.264. Also, unlike H.264, WebM is not hardware accelerated on most devices. WebM is also very new and hence hardly used at all. Instead of sticking to a popular format and then convincing Mozilla and Opera to adopt it, Google went the wrong way. It picked a relatively new format that no one uses and is now trying to convince everyone to adopt it.
Google may not have a market share as high as Microsoft's Internet Explorer to make every video publisher to immediately start converting their videos in WebM. However, they do own YouTube, which houses a massive percentage of the Internet's videos. Tomorrow, if they will start serving HTML5 video on YouTube only in WebM format, and if your browser does not support WebM, then you will have to use Adobe's Flash player plugin to playback the H.264 version (if it is still available). This defeats the whole purpose of having the HTML5 video tag, which was supposed to enable users to watch videos without having to rely on plugins.
Apple and Microsoft currently don't support WebM and it seems doubtful that they ever will. What this means is that if you have to watch a YouTube video on, say, an iPhone in future, then you are out of luck. The iPhone supports HTML5 videos in H.264 and has no support for either WebM or Flash player. This means you will neither be able to watch the video in WebM format directly, nor the H.264 version through a Flash player.
Google said they will be releasing a plugin to enable WebM playback on the Internet Explorer and Safari, which again makes no sense. Why do they keep forgetting that the point of HTML5 video was to get rid of the damn plugins?
Once Google drops support for H.264 from HTML5 video on YouTube, users will have to rely on Flash to watch these videos. Now I'm sure everyone knows how much Flash sucks and one of the best things Apple has done in their lifetime was to try and drive people away from Flash and promote native HTML5 video playback within the browser. But now Google is again making people go back to relying on Flash so that they can continue to watch online videos.
How is Google being an ass?

Google claimed that they wanted to adopt the WebM format because they wanted to go open source. Yet, they also ship Chrome with Adobe's Flash plugin, which is the complete opposite of open source. How can a company claim to support open source when they are shipping software with proprietary plugins?
Google's move to drop H.264 also reeks of malice and is a way to get back at Apple. Apple's devices currently support only H.264 codec for video playback on the web. If tomorrow Google drops the support for this codec on the biggest video sharing website on the Internet, they will effectively block Apple's devices from accessing YouTube. If Apple ever has to enable YouTube support on their devices they will have to change their stance on either WebM or Flash, which means accepting defeat to either Google or Adobe.
Google's was the only browser that supported both H.264 and WebM, and the users of Chrome would have never had to bother what video they were watching since their browser was compatible with either format. But now Chrome users would have to shift to using the built-in Flash plugin and live with its idiosyncrasies every time they encounter a H.264 encoded video.
We also can't help but think Adobe has a hand in this. Think about it. If HTML5 video becomes the norm, which it eventually will, people will have no reason to continue to use Adobe's Flash player. Apple was the major player who promoted HTML5 video and the first one to drop Flash support completely on their mobile devices. But now thanks to Google's move, not only will people have to continue to rely on Flash players in future if they want to watch H.264 encoded videos (which won't disappear overnight) but Apple also would be in fix and would have to consider getting Flash on their devices. Although we believe if it comes to that, Apple would rather choose WebM over Flash.
I think Google isn't really promoting the open source community but rather Flash. Just because Google is going WebM doesn't mean every other video publisher will drop H.264 and adopt WebM. This means users will forever be stuck using Flash player for watching videos. What Google (and Mozilla and Opera) needs to understand is that by promoting esoteric formats such as WebM for HTML5 video will only stifle its growth while making people depend on proprietary plugins such as Adobe Flash.
We would love to hear your opinion on the matter. Do leave a comment below. Do you agree with what Google has done? Or do you feel that dropping H.264 was a bad idea? How do you like the idea of having to use Flash all the time for watching online videos? And if you own an iOS device, how would you feel if tomorrow you don't get access to YouTube videos? Let us know in the comments


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