I didn’t plan on this, but there’s really nothing I can do. Unless you want me to write about the upcoming ten billionth download from the iOS App Store, you’ll have to settle for this. On the Chromium blog, Google has clarified its decision to drop H.264 support from the Chrome web browser, and in it, Google basically repeats the things that those concerned about the future of video on the web have been saying for a long time now: H.264 on the web kills innovation.
Google again states that they believe that the core technologies of the web need to be open. “We genuinely believe that core web technologies need to be open and community developed to enable the same great innovation that has brought the web to where it is today,” Google’s Mike Jazayeri states, “These facts led us to join the efforts of the web community and invest in an open alternative, WebM.”
There’s been a lot of ruckus about the definition of ‘open’, but in this case, Google is absolutely right in their usage of the term. The European Union’s definition of an ‘open standard’ is one that is royalty-free. The Open Source Initiative also lists royalty-free as a requirement. Heck, even Microsoft defines an open standard as one that is royalty-free.
Google repeats the argument that H.264 proponents like John Gruber and Ars’ Peter Bright ignore: if HTML5 video standardises on H.264, innovation will be stifled. “To use and distribute H.264, browser and OS vendors, hardware manufacturers, and publishers who charge for content must pay significant royalties – with no guarantee the fees won’t increase in the future,” Jazayeri explains, “To companies like Google, the license fees may not be material, but to the next great video startup and those in emerging markets these fees stifle innovation.”
And this is the crux of the matter, something I already touched upon yesterday: sure, rich and large companies can easily afford the H.264 license – but that spotty teenager or inventive entrepreneur in a developing country with a brilliant idea for a video-based service cannot. The MPEG-LA’s stranglehold on video would then stifle innovation on the web. As Asa Dotzler put it, “if H.264 had been a browser requirement in 2003-2004, Firefox could not have happened. We’re thinking about the next Firefox.”
Jazayeri continues, “When technology decisions are clouded by conflicting incentives to collect patent royalties, the priorities and outcome are less clear and the process tends to take a lot longer. This is not good for the long term health of web video. We believe the web will suffer if there isn’t a truly open, rapidly evolving, community developed alternative and have made significant investments to ensure there is one.”
Jazayeri further details that this move doesn’t mean Chrome will suddenly stop playing all H.264 content; the fact of the matter is that plain HTML5 video using H.264 is extremely rare (mostly on iOS, which makes up an almost negligible amount of web users), and very few sites actually implement it. Almost all content H.264 supporters point to is H.264 baked into Flash, and Chrome will be able to display that for at least the foreseeable future.
Jazayeri also revealed that plugins for Internet Explorer 9 and Safari are upcoming, but exactly what these will look like he didn’t say. Will these be browser plugins in the traditional sense, or are we talking about Media Foundation filters and QuickTime plugins? In any case, this further cements my belief that Google will announce the YouTube switch-over shortly. Of course, this switch-over will be staggered.
All in all, as this graphic shows, support for H264 on the web isn’t as clear-cut as it may seem. Over the coming months, a majority of web users will be able to play WebM, while not being able to play H.264. When the YouTube switch-over arrives, H.264 for HTML5 video will be dealt a devastating blow. I wouldn’t be surprised if Microsoft will announce support for WebM for IE9 out of the box in 2011 – Microsoft desperately needs IE9 to succeed, and supporting WebM would garner goodwill while also ensuring superior compatibility, at no cost for them.
As a final note, some seem to place a considerable amount of emphasis on services like NetFlix and Hulu using H.264. There are two reasons why services like these do not matter. Firstly, they are incredibly unpopular in the grand scheme of things. They are US-only, and I’d be surprised if more than 0.5% of web users use either of them. Secondly, and more importantly, these services rely on DRM, and as such, will continue to use Flash/Silverlight anyway.