Yesterday, Google announced that future versions of its Chrome browser would not support what has become an industry standard - the H.264 video codec - in providing video on the Web. The move leaves Internet Explorer 9 and Safari as the only browsers supporting the technology, which Google says is not "completely open".
While this might sound like a lot of high tech politics (and it very well may be), some suggest that it comes down to the bottom line. In the end, the move may affect the average Web user, leaving them with poor performance and no universal standards for playing video on the Web.
Many people were quick to point out yesterday that Google's ideological distinction between WebM and H.264 as open and closed seemed to be contradicted by its continued acceptance (and embedding) of Adobe Flash in Chrome.
"Back to the Dark Ages"
Justin Day, co-founder and CTO of online video network blip.tv, says that the move goes backwards, instead of forwards.
"I think from our standpoint this looks like a regression. We're all for open formats, but they should be chosen based on their merits, not merely their license," said Day. "This move means that Chrome users will suffer from a worse user experience because they will need to rely on Flash fallback."
Michael Critz, freelance interactive and motion graphic designer, agreed that the move was a regression for the average user.
"Before H.264 arrived digital video was a disaster. MOV, WMV, Real Video, AVI... it was a nightmare meeting the expectations of different users," said Critz. "With H.264 there was a brief period I was finally able to communicate with users, clients and producers clearly. I could say, 'I'll get you an MP4 file.' Everyone knew with confidence that they could watch our video. Now Google wants to send us back to the dark ages."
WebM vs. H.264
According to Day there is no competition between WebM and H.264 on the content producer end of the equation. H.264 wins.
"The fact is that the open source encoders we use make higher quality video at a lower cost using H.264. Unless WebM can outperform H.264, it doesn't make sense for us to support it," said Day.
Critz boiled it down in a similar way.
"There isn't a desktop WebM conversion tool that worth a pile of beans to what's available now for H.264," he explained. "I'm often traveling for video shoots. If I'm on a shoot in Miami and working all day then I get back to my hotel room I know I can depend on my Turbo.264 encoder to give me hardware accelerated H.264 encoding that I can use online, in Flash, on my producers' iPad, and on my clients' iPhones and Blackberry phones."
A Standoff Leaves Users in the Middle
Day said that blip.tv will continue to use H.264 and users whose browsers do not support it will fall back on Flash. Those with H.264 compatible browsers "may notice that their playback experience is improved and that their system is not as sluggish while playing Web video."
In situations like this, it can be all about the money, and CNET's Jason Perlow says that's the bottom line for Google. At the same time, Day says that's the bottom line for them, too. Letting Flash take up the slack is much easier, and cheaper, than encoding video with both WebM and H.264. If Google really is looking to push developers to supporting its WebM codec instead, said Day, extending the move to Android and Google TV "would force our hand."
But what is the solution to all of this? Universal support, says Day.
"In an ideal world, none of this would be browser specific at all," he said. "The video tag should support any codecs the user has installed on their system."
In the end, what we have is a stalemate, with users potentially losing out. Developers, content providers and creators may continue to use what they call a superior product in H.264, while Google, Mozilla and others refuse to support it, meaning that users end up falling back on Flash and getting a more "sluggish" performance than they otherwise might with hardware-accelerated H.264.