an answer to John Gruber: Google dropping H.264 is good for everyone

Google just dropped support for H.264 in Chrome. John Gruber, among others, is not happy. Now, John Gruber is a very smart guy, but his Apple bias is too much even for me, and it’s preventing him from seeing what is fairly obvious. So, allow me to answer John’s questions, even though I have no inside knowledge whatsoever:

In addition to supporting H.264, Chrome currently bundles an embedded version of Adobe’s closed source and proprietary Flash Player plugin. If H.264 support is being removed to “enable open innovation”, will Flash Player support be dropped as well? If not, why?

Look more carefully at what Google did. They started by supporting H.264 when they had no alternative. Then they introduced a truly free alternative, WebM, which was a major coup. Unlike H.264, this video codec will never hold the Web hostage. Once WebM saw adoption, improvements, and a healthy open-source community, Google was ready to drop H.264, and so they did.

I’m sure that if Google had a true open alternative to Flash, they would follow the exact same pattern. But they don’t. This means they are pragmatists, not free-software purists. They work towards the Open Web, sticking with closed alternatives when they have no other option. I do hope that, when the market tips sufficiently against Flash (and Apple is doing a very good job helping this along, good for them), Google also drops Flash. But there’s a lot more legacy to deal with, so it will take a lot longer.

Android currently supports H.264. Will this support be removed from Android? If not, why not?

I’d say probably yes, but Google is a big company and I’m guessing those decisions are made by different folks. Do you actually expect perfect principled, perfectly timed consistency across the board from such a large business?

YouTube uses H.264 to encode video. Presumably, YouTube will be re-encoding its entire library using WebM. When this happens, will YouTube’s support for H.264 be dropped, to “enable open innovation”? If not, why not?

Maybe. But YouTube dropping H.264 when Apple and Microsoft’s browsers don’t support WebM yet would be a much harsher move, since Safari and IE users would be SOL, and Apple and Microsoft would have to rush to make their browsers compatible with YouTube again while users flock to other browsers. Google Chrome dropping H.264 is a risk Google is taking on, by making their own product less feature-full. That’s a bold move showing they truly believe in the Open Web. Don’t like it? Download another browser. Who’s stopping you?

I suspect Google will gently nudge Apple and Microsoft to support WebM, and only when they do will YouTube switch. That’s the pragmatist, non-confrontational approach.

Do you expect companies like Netflix, Amazon, Vimeo, Major League Baseball, and anyone else who currently streams H.264 to dual-encode all of their video using WebM? If not, how will Chrome users watch this content other than by resorting to Flash Player’s support for H.264 playback?

Ummm, dude, it’s Google’s product! What are you so upset about? It’s not as if they have a monopoly like, say, Mobile Safari on smart phones. Netflix, Amazon, Vimeo, MLB will have to decide how important the Chrome market is to them. As you say, Flash fallback will still work, so they may simply ignore this. More likely, they may be nudged to dual-encode, if enough users like Chrome and are willing to stick with it. That’s the bet Google is making “our product is so good, we have a chance to make the Web more open with it.”

Who is happy about this?

Anyone who sees the risk of deploying another closed technology to form the basic infrastructure of the Web, and the benefit of having truly open Web infrastructure. You should be happy about this.

19 thoughts on “an answer to John Gruber: Google dropping H.264 is good for everyone

  1. The ‘blah blah … stupid possibility … why not?’ lament is typical of a baby who has been told he can’t do/have something. I have found the best answer is ignoring them.

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  3. With Adobe adding WebM support to Flash, YouTube could move to WebM only. It could even be limited to new videos.

  4. I’m confused. You said, “Once WebM saw adoption, improvements, and a healthy open-source community, Google was ready to drop H.264, and so they did.”

    Adoption? By whom?

  5. How about this, I’m a consumer who now has many devices that rely on H.264. My portable devices have hardware decoders, my video cameras shoot to it, and I now have a lot of video encoded with it.

    To me, the patent issues are completely invisible, all I get now is a great experience that works across all platforms (unlike the days of real player, etc) and doesn’t overtax my batteries. Now I have to worry about *another* codec and the confusion about what format to store my memories.

    Open is nice but standardizing is a LOT nicer for those of us using the technology with other things to do in our lives.

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  7. But those are just organizations signalling their intent to do something. You were talking about adoption. What percentage of web users have the ability to play WebM today? How many video sites output WebM? How many cameras record to WebM? Which video editing packages write or edit WebM?

    I think we know the answers to those questions: very few, almost none, none, and none.

    My point is that I think you have what Google is doing backwards. It isn’t that enough people are using WebM, it’s that Google thinks that Chrome has enough users that they can force the issue. But that’s not realistic: content providers aren’t going to start using WebM after this announcement, they’re more likely to keep using Flash with H.264 as it’s now – more than ever – the only cross-platform choice. This isn’t so much Google supporting an open source project as Google further strengthening Flash’s position in the market.

    What’s sad to me is that what Google has done here is stall the progress on adoption of the HTML5 video tag. It’s back to plugins for most people now.

    And to Aaron’s point above, many folks have claimed that WebM is just as patent-encumbered as anything else – if only because the patent system is so screwed up. But that’s another discussion.🙂

  8. But those are just organizations signalling their intent to do something. You were talking about adoption. What percentage of web users have the ability to play WebM today? How many video sites output WebM? How many cameras record to WebM? Which video editing packages write or edit WebM?

    I think we know the answers to those questions: very few, almost none, none, and none.

    My point is that I think you have what Google is doing backwards. It isn’t that enough people are using WebM, it’s that Google thinks that Chrome has enough users that they can force the issue. But that’s not realistic: content providers aren’t going to start using WebM after this announcement, they’re more likely to keep using Flash with H.264 as it’s now – more than ever – the only cross-platform choice. This isn’t so much Google supporting an open source project as Google further strengthening Flash’s position in the market.

    What’s sad to me is that what Google has done here is stall the progress on adoption of the HTML5 video tag. It’s back to plugins for most people now.

    And to Aaron’s point above, many folks have claimed that WebM is just as patent-encumbered as anything else – if only because the patent system is so screwed up. But that’s another discussion.🙂

  9. The patent issues are invisible if you’re only looking at direct effects, not how the significantly increased cost of browser and publishing tool development will affect the generativity of the Web. Mozilla estimates that they can employ 30 engineers for the price of the H.264 yearly patent fees. 30 engineers are going to make Firefox a heck of a lot better, and you’ll benefit from that.

    And again, if you don’t like this, go ahead and use Safari or Internet Explorer. Who’s stopping you? Stick with H.264 if you believe it won’t bite you.

  10. Why don’t you think that Apple and Microsoft are slowing down the progress of HTML5? I mean, if they just supported WebM, which would cost them nothing in licensing fees, then we’d have a universal (and free!) web video format.

  11. Microsoft had announced they aren’t going to stop third-party supported plugins for WebM. Google is actively removing a so far supported codec and removing a choice (for good or worse).

    When WebM gets a large userbase, what is there to guarantee that H.264 patent owners (infuriated by loss in revenue) won’t sue Google (and create FUD). What if they do prove in a court that WebM actually infringes on a H.264 patent and demand royalty from everyone. Who will pay for the enormous cost of re-publishing all our content using another royalty free codec?

    Why is the codec that the free world wants to standardize on is not a standard ratified by a standards body? I may be fantasizing, but before promoting it as a royalty free alternative to H.264, Mozilla should take the lead and force Google to

    1. Submit WebM to a standards body for ratification and do a patent audit and if there are no patent infringements make this fact widely known so that nobody can come later a few years later and create FUD.

    2. Institute a fund/Developer contest/whatever to improve the technical qualities of the codec before HTML5 hits mainstream. Going ahead with a less than efficient codec will be as good as sticking with IE6 for years.

  12. That’s a fair question. (Though you’re kinda ducking my points my asking it!) I’m not going to try to speak to Microsoft’s strategy since it appears that they’ve had it hooked up to a random number generator for the last 10 years.

    But for Apple, you’re really minimizing the situation by saying that it’d cost them nothing in licensing fees. Obviously they have the money to pay whatever licenses they like, but WebM adoption wouldn’t be free for them:

    a) Unlike Google, they have a LOT of software that produces, edits and displays video. Adding WebM to their toolchain is a significant investment. Adding it to Safari seems simple enough, but can you imagine people that care about Open software being okay with them stopping there?🙂

    b) While we can argue about the potential for patent liability of any given standard all day, it’s the case that Apple is protected from patent suits by the strong portfolio of the MPEG-LA consortium. Meanwhile, Google owns the patents to WebM and refuses to indemnify users or implementors. Why would anyone risk using that, especially at the scale that Apple operates?

    And that’s all putting aside the fact that WebM is a demonstrably inferior solution to H.264. File sizes are larger, processing efficiency for implementors is higher, quality is lower. Going to that much trouble for a second- or third-best solution seems silly.

    More importantly, Apple has already got a significant stake in H.264. They’ve shipped millions of devices with hardware decoding for H.264 built in. They’ve convinced much of the video-publishing industry to switch to it, and based their own push for open web standards against Adobe’s Flash in part on their ability to efficiently play web video because of H.264.

    Besides which: arguing that Apple is slowing down the progress of HTML5 would be pretty disingenuous considering how influential they’ve been in its creation and adoption. Let’s not lose sight of the fact that much of the work in that area has been done by the Webkit team – without whose hard work there wouldn’t be a Chrome for us to argue about.🙂

  13. “Android currently supports H.264. Will this support be removed from Android? If not, why not?”

    Simply not, Android is opened and manufacturers provide the services they want in addition. I don’t see them removing H.264 support that any hacker could bring back. Maybe in the far distant future if WebM is big enough it could happen, but not in the next few years.

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