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Is The Future Shaky for Google Chrome and Web Video?

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Recently, Google has announced that it will withdraw support for the H.264 video codec in lieu of its newly acquired On2 technology, which supports the WebM VP8 and Ogg Theora codecs. What does this mean for your future web video experience?

While this does sound like alien language, our crew is going to break down the logistics and discuss if Google Chrome is essentially promoting or undermining the open web. Read on and then decide for yourself.

HTML5 is the next major (cooler and sexier) revision of the HTML standard, currently under development for structuring and presenting content on the World Wide Web.

If you want to see an HTML5 website, check out the band Arcade Fire’s new interactive film titled The Wilderness Downtown made as part of the Google Chrome Experiment.

There has been much anticipation and promise made of HTML5’s <video> tag, which will allow web pages to contain embedded video without the need for plugins (so long Flash!?). Instead, HTML5 will require codecs to be implemented. A codec is software that encodes the video signal for transmission via data packets over the Internet and decodes it for playback. The heated questions under debate are, “should the HTML5 specification mandate support for specific codecs, and if so, which should be required?”

After much discussion and bantering from developers, it was decided that it should be up to the different browser vendors to pick their own preferred codecs. There are three major players vying for consideration – H.264, Ogg Theora, and WebM VP8:

  • Apple (Safari) and Microsoft (IE) will use H.264 and H.264 alone
  • Mozilla (Firefox) will use Theora
  • Mozilla (Firefox 4 beta) will use VP8
  • Google (Chrome old) uses Theora, VP8, and H.264
  • Google (Chrome new) will use Theora and VP8

Google’s reason for dropping H.264: WebM’s VP8 and Ogg’s Theora are “open-codecs” and H.264 is not.

Let’s take a closer look at the different codecs and decide for ourselves.

The Codecs

VP8 was created by the WebM Project, which is dedicated to developing a high-quality, open video format for the web that is freely available to everyone. The company On2 developed VP8 independently and entirely in secret – most likely in a nuclear fallout bunker deep inside the tundra regions of Russia. Coincidentally, this development was made prior to Google’s purchase of On2.

Technically, VP8’s development cannot be described as an open, community process. It was a commercial product, licensed by On2. Keeping the specifics of the codec secret was a deliberate goal of the company. So how can Google claim that VP8 is an “open-codec?”

Theora is another free and open video compression format that was created by the Xiph.org Foundation, which is a non-profit corporation dedicated to protecting multimedia from control by private interests.

H.264 is THE standard format for video compression, used in Blu-ray discs, YouTube, iTunes, broadcast satellite television, cable television, and real-time video conferencing. It was created as a collective group effort by two top-secret sounding organizations: ISO (International Organization for Standardization), a network of the national standards institutes of 163 countries and ITU (International Telecommunication Union), the UN agency for information and communication technologies. In the traditional sense, H.264 is an open standard.

For Google to claim that it is moving to “open codecs” is really semi-preposterous: H.264 and Theora are very much open codecs. WebM is not. Let’s look into a couple factors.

It’s About The Royalties and an Open Technology System

Like everything else in life, it’s about money.

H.264 is not royalty-free. According to Peter Bright’s article, Google’s dropping H.264 from Chrome a step backward for openness, “Anyone wanting to distribute an implementation of H.264 must obtain licenses for all of the different patented techniques that they use, and these licenses typically come at some cost.” The licensing consortium in this case, is MPEG-LA.

Bright also noted “Both VP8 and Theora are, however, royalty-free. Both were designed to avoid existing video patents. Theora was designed to not use patented techniques at all. VP8 does include patented techniques, but these techniques were developed and patented by On2. Google, as present owner of those patents, is permitting their use, in any application, without payment of royalty.”

Let’s face it though. To a company like Google that is worth billions, paying the license fees is not really the issue. They’re claiming, however, that the next (hypothetical) video startup might have their innovation stifled if they have to fork out dough for the royalties. It’s Google’s belief that committing to long-term web-based innovation is best served by an open technology ecosystem.

According to Google’s Chromium Blog post, “Our [Google’s] choice was to make a decision today and invest in open technology to move the platform forward, or to accept the status quo of a fragmented platform where the pace of innovation may be clouded by the interests of those collecting royalties. Seen in this light, we are choosing to bet on the open web and are confident this decision will spur innovation that benefits users and the industry.”

The Wave of the Future

Google is still the “800lb Gorilla” in the consumer media and search arena, so with a decision like this, it will be interesting to see how content publishers and developers react. Most likely, there will not be an unanimous decision made on a baseline codec for HTML video. Providers will still have to produce multiple versions of their videos to optimize for various browsers and increasingly, mobile devices.

Here are some questions to consider:

  • Will this issue of technological formatting play out for many years, like the Betamax vs VHS Format War or most recently, the HD-DVD vs Blu-ray Disc?
  • Is this Google’s stealthy strategy to impede Apple’s iOS operating system within their mobile products, like the iPhone and the iPad?
  • Even though the Google Android operating system currently runs on H.264, will this change to WebM only in the near future?
  • Will there be a steel cage death match between Steve Jobs and the Sergey Brin-Larry page combo? And who would you put your money on?

Only time will tell.

What are your thoughts? Please let us know!

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