Google Chrome Nixes H.264 Favored by Apple, Microsoft

Google is canning support for the H.264 video codec standard espoused by Apple and Microsoft in favor of its open-source WebM and the Theora codecs. Media immediately flags BS.

Google Jan. 11 said it would no longer support the H.264 video codec standard for its Chrome Web browser, an effort to push its open source WebM codec and the Theora codec.

Google Chrome Product Manager Mike Jazayeri said these codecs, which encode and decode video and audio content in the Web browser, hew more closely to the search engine's HTML5 goals.

"We are supporting the WebM (VP8) and Theora video codecs, and will consider adding support for other high-quality open codecs in the future," Jazayerisaid in a blog post.

"Though H.264 plays an important role in video, as our goal is to enable open innovation, support for the codec will be removed and our resources directed towards completely open codec technologies."

Jazayeri added that while these changes will occur in the next couple months Google is announcing them now to give content publishers and programmers time to rewrite applications to support WebM and Theora. Mozilla Firefox and Opera browsers support these standards.

The move, as the blogosphere has duly noted, is risky. H.264 is considered the de facto standard among video codecs. But it's a proprietary technology owned by MPEG LA, who made the codec a standard long before more viable options existed.

Google doesn't want to support such a technology from an organization that charges lofty licensing fees. MPEG LA licenses hundreds of video-related patents on behalf of patent holders Microsoft, LG Electronics, Panasonic, Philips Electronics, Samsung, Sharp, Sony, and Toshiba.

It's easy to see why Google wants to quash H.264 support, but the media isn't buying Google's politic explanation of wanting to support "open innovation" -- not when broader endorsement of the WebM codec will clearly boost Google.

Ironically, Silicon Alley Insider called Google's move to drop H.264 support one right out of Microsoft's playbook: promote its own format at the expense of another.

Apple enthusiast John Gruber pointed out some potential hypocrisy in Google's justification that the move is purely toward ensuring openness. After all, Chrome ships with support for the Adobe's proprietary Flash player; there's no openness there. Gruber explained:

"If Google is dropping support for H.264 because their 'goal is to enable open innovation,' why don't they also drop support for closed plugins like Flash Player? As it stands now, Chrome not only supports Flash, it ships with its own embedded copy of Flash. I don't see how Google keeps Flash but drops H.264 in the name of 'openness' without being seen as utter hypocrites."

That, too, is a play out of the playbook of Microsoft and other tech companies: embrace and extend openness where the openness in question benefits the company.

For Google, the push to move developers away from H.264 and toward WebM is such a maneuver. It's also a question of pride and money.

Google doesn't want to swallow its pride and endorse a technology that requires patent royalties, not when it already spent $124.6 million to buy and open-source the WebM codec in its 2009 acquisition of On2 Technologies.

CNET has the best write-up of the issue here.