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Google Misses The Big Picture

by in Telecom

Today Google pestilently announced that its Chrome browser will no longer natively support H.264. It’s altruistic logic reasoned that:

To that end, we are changing Chrome’s HTML5 support to make it consistent with the codecs already supported by the open Chromium project. 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.

I suspect this move will backfire – or at least be mitigated with H.264 browser plugins which Google can’t prevent. The whole thing is silly posturing that will create inconvenience for the users.  

Brief History

H.264 has become the primary video codec thanks largely to the support of Apple and Microsoft. It is also gaining increasing importance as the primary means for video conference systems to interoperate. The codec has its strengths and weaknesses, but its key strength is popularity and its key weakness is patents.

Codecs benefit from network externalities, that’s econspeak for value that increases with its popularity. The classic example is a telephone. One telephone is useless, but the more people you can call make phones more valuable.  A video encoded in H.264 can only be viewed with an H.264 decoder which happens to be on every Mac and Windows desktop.

There are approximately 1200 patents that make H.264 work. That’s an environment that doesn’t exactly invite innovation. Another popular codec is VP7 which was created by On2, formerly known as The Duck Corporation.  Google acquired On2 in August of 2009. At the time of acquisition, customers included Skype, Adobe, Nokia, Sun, and Sony. That’s right, Skype video uses VP7 in its client (but oddly translates to H.264 when exchanging video with one of its hardware partners).

Google created WebM in May 2010 as a new open source/royalty free project based on its newly acquired technology from On2. WebM is Google’s attempt to create broad support for On2’s latest video codec called VP8 along with an audio codec known as Ogg Vorbis (an open source project previously created by On2) (the two codecs together equal WebM).

Google likely hopes that a high quality codec without the burden of royalties will drive video content and the popularity of WebM at the expense of H.264.

Google and Adobe are expanding their Flash/Android friendship with WebM. Adobe CTO Kevin Lynch said at the WebM launch that Adobe will use VP8 in Flash, and distribute it to “a billion people within a year”. WebM will also be supported in HTML5, Firefox, Chrome, and Internet Explorer (plugin required). Google is also re-coding all of YouTube to the WebM format.

But H.264 isn’t playing dead. It gained popularity by giving itself away to consumers and only charging fees to professionals – a reasonable approach considering network externalities. Though the gift had an expiration date. In direct response to Google creating WebM, H.264 licensing also became royalty-free last August.

The H.264 codec that makes a good deal of digital video possible has actually been free to use (under certain conditions) for many years, but following recent controversies over the future of web video, rightholders have agreed to extend that freedom in perpetuity. Whereas originally standards organization MPEG-LA had said it wouldn’t collect royalties from those freely distributing AVC/H.264 video until 2016, the limitless new timeframe may mean that content providers banking on WebM and HTML5 video won’t have an expensive surprise in the years to come.

Google’s Mistake

I applaud Google for embracing open standards. It purchased On2 at an estimated valuation of $106 millionand had no obligation to create VP8 as an open standard. It was a tremendous gift to the Internet community. But I think Google is wrong about removing H.264 support from Chrome for the following reasons:

  1. Chrome is not the only browser. I like Chrome and use it as my default browser, but if it didn’t work with all my sites, I would drop it in a second. Chrome has a growing base of users, but is still behind IE and Firefox in market share and they natively support H.264. IE9 is coming and is supposedly faster than Chrome.
  2. I love the concept of Chrome OS, but it has a huge battle to gain market acceptance. It needs the cloud print initiative and needs to be as powerful and seamless as full blown desktop operating systems to gain market acceptance. This stunt will have a negative impact to ChromeOS.
  3. “…support for the codec will be removed and our resources directed towards completely open codec technologies.” Exactly how much support are we talking about. Considering Google doesn’t develop H.264, it can’t take very many resources to bundle it into the browser; particularly since it’s already been done.
  4. It is very Apple like. Steve Jobs had a personal vendetta against Adobe Flash and wants it removed from the Apple ecosystem. The fact it was so incredibly popular and lack of support significantly weakened iPhone users’ ability to surf the net which evidently was not a big deal. Apple had enough might and market share that sites using flash reconsidered so that the huge iPhone market could come to their sites. It was BS when Apple did it, and its BS when Google does it. The vast majority of content out there uses H.264 and removing it from the browser is simply creating an annoyance to Chrome users.
  5. It doesn’t matter. Chrome supports plugins and there will be H.264 plugins available. So instead of making a powerful browser and excellent customer experience, Google will purposely cripple it and force Chrome users to deal with it separately.
  6. Petty. If Google wants WebM to change the world, let it. First off, it already has by making H.264 royalty free. But more importantly WebM has a future if its better. Royalty free is still important for the creators of content. YouTube is still going to use WebM, the world of streaming video is just taking shape. If VP7 is better, let it win. No need to play puppet master.
  7. Focus on the content. YouTube is big, Skype is big, IMDB is big. there are plenty of Google assets to drive content – don’t create heartache for the users. The need for video codecs are increasing – streaming content, video conferencing, video chats, recorded videocasts (Qik), camcorders, etc.
  8. There is an air of hypocrisy here as Chrome does support Flash (a closed proprietary solution) and Android does support H.264. Google and Adobe are buddies (the enemy of my enemy is my friend rule), so Flash stays – but principles can only be so compromised?

UPDATED

This post has bothered me because it is clearly too obvious. Google must have thought through the above points, but still felt it was necessary. I could not see it, but now I have a theory.
“Znu”, on Slashdot posted:

This serves two strategic purposes for Google. First, it advances a codec that’s de facto controlled by Google at the expense of a codec that is a legitimate open standard controlled by a multi-vendor governance process managed by reputable international standards bodies. (“Open source” != “open standard”.) And second, it will slow the transition to HTML5 and away from Flash by creating more confusion about which codec to use for HTML5 video, which benefits Google by hurting Apple (since Apple doesn’t want to support Flash), but also sucks for users.

Don’t be evil.
Znu was on to something. So much talk about this week about Apple’s iPhone and Verizon at the expense of Android… yes – something to hurt Apple has some merit.
George Ou at Digital Society agrees:

…it just occurred to me that Google’s decision effectively kills HTML5 video adoption and forces video content providers to continue using Flash as the delivery mechanism for H.264 compressed streaming video.  But why would Google which purports to be in favor of open web standards want to kill HTML5?  Simple, it kills the only means of delivering video to Apple’s iOS devices which include iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch devices which greatly helps Google’s Android smartphone Operating System.

Had the web been permitted to migrate to HTML5 video delivery, Apple would benefit from the increased content availability which makes them more competitive, but HTML5 as a universal video delivery platform has now effectively been derailed by Google.  Google, Adobe, and Microsoft all stand to benefit at the expense of Apple iOS.

Google has been a big backer of HTML5 – it wants the web to be more client-less/app-less replaced with more feature rich HTML. All those apps on all those phones (including Android) are largely invisible to Google’s search engine. In an HTML5 world, apps will be less important as many popular client features are extended to a native browser.Which makes Google’s core business even more valuable.
Different vendors are embracing HTML5 for different reasons – for Apple, it’s the final nail into Flash.

Google is attempting to slow the adoption of HTML5 video to hurt Apple. Not a bad strategy, but I don’t think Chrome has enough muscle to do it.

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