Google does an Apple in reverse -- will drop H.264 support in Chrome

Would someone please stop the "Twilight Zone" music from playing. I'm hearing it now following today's Google bombshell (Yes, there is other news besides Verizon iPhone): Chrome will soon no longer support the H.264 codec. Google supports Flash Video, but Apple has abandoned it. Apple supports H.264, and Google is giving it up. Someone pinch me when there is something resembling sanity among these companies' positions. Perhaps Firefox can save us all and our online video streaming. No, wait! Mozilla also spurns H.264. Well, gulp, Internet Explorer anyone?

Apple's Flash abandonment is nutty enough, at least in the here and now, given how widely Adobe's technology is used on the Web. H.264 also is pervasive, making Google's plan as out of touch, from a user experience perspective. Then there is Google's support for Flash to consider. Am I missing something or isn't H.264 a primary Flash codec?

Google's position on H.264 is strange because the stated reason is openness or lack of it. Rather than H.264, Google is opting for the WebM audio and video codec, which is a fairly recent but open entrant. "We expect even more rapid innovation in the web media platform in the coming year and are focusing our investments in those technologies that are developed and licensed based on open web principles," Mike Jazayeri, Chromium product manager, asserted in a blog post. Excuse me, isn't there something contradictory here? What is open about Flash, or some of the other technologies Google supports?

"To that end, we are changing Chrome's HTML5 support to make it consistent with the codecs already supported by the open Chromium project," he continued. "Specifically, we are supporting the WebM (VP8) and Theora video codecs, and will consider adding support for other high-quality open codecs in the future. 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."

One commenter to the blog post, going by handle Andrex, called Google's video codec changeling a "ballsy move." Commenter Abe challenged: "Your move Apple." In the tit-for-tat skirmish between Apple and Google over web video, the H.264 abandonment warrants response.

"These changes will occur in the next couple months but we are announcing them now to give content publishers and developers using HTML5 an opportunity to make any necessary changes to their sites," Jazayeri emphasized. My question: What should be the real definition of open -- open availability or open licensing/development? By the measure of open availability, Google's H.264 position makes as little sense as Apple's regarding Flash.

Several other commenters to Jazayeri's blog post captured my sentiments and surprise. "Well, that [is] a violent move: that leave[s] the site's owner with the choice of staying with Flash player + H.264 alone or to double encode their videos -- one in WebM for half the browser market, the other in H.264 for the rest of the world," writes commenter, Jean-Pierre. "I know YouTube is doing it, but for the rest of the world, that's not a cheap enough move. Aren't you afraid to simply kill the HTML5 video tag?"

"Ugh. This is a move by Google where they care more about the open source 'community' than they do actual users of their browser," Commenter Shidoshi griped. "Let's be real here: WebM has a long way to go before it will have any serious amount of traction...Like it or not, H.264 is becoming the standard, and dropping support for it for no good reason is ridiculous."

Of course, many people have said the same about Flash, and that didn't stop Apple from giving Adobe or anyone else using the technology a big middle finger. Google, or the Chromium team anyway, is making a philosophical stand -- and one that might eventually move more developers to open codecs. But in the here and now, particularly with so many devices offering hardware that supports H.264, the Chrome user experience may suffer in a few months. Of course, someone can always release a H.264 extension, giving Chrome users the video they want and allowing Google to keep purity with the open-source community and to pursue other development goals.

What about Android's browser? Google could drive open codecs' adoption by also dumping H.264 there and working with WebM and phone manufacturers and chip suppliers to offer hardware support for the codec.

What do you think of Google's plans? Please answer in comments.

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