Google reveals plan to remove H.264 support from Chrome

Google logoIn a move to encourage support for royalty-free codecs on the Web, Google announced this morning that it will remove the patent-encumbered H.264 codec from future versions of its Chrome Web browser. This new twist in the video codec debate could help accelerate adoption of Google's own WebM format, but it will also compound the technical challenges faced by content producers who want to use standards-based video to reach a broad audience on the Web.

Used on Blu-ray discs and supported across a wide range of mainstream consumer electronics devices, the H.264 codec is the current de facto industry standard for encoding digital video. Although H.264 has many technical advantages, Web standards advocates oppose using it as the standard format for the HTML5 video tag. The underlying compression mechanisms in H.264 are patented and adopters have to pay royalties to a licensing consortium called MPEG-LA. Standards advocates view this patent encumbrance as undesirable for the Web.

In an effort to provide a viable open alternative to H.264, Google acquired video technology company On2 and opened up the company's competitive VP8 codec, creating a new royalty-free media format called WebM. Support for WebM has since been added to Firefox, Opera, and Chrome. Microsoft and Apple have declined to adopt the new royalty-free format, however, and have remained committed to supporting H.264 in their browsers. Apple favors H.264 because its quality is still considered technically superior and because it already has robust hardware-accelerated decoding support on Apple's popular devices.

Google appeared to favor the pragmatic approach and had opted to support both formats in its own browser, but is now moving towards a fully open approach. In a post on the official Chromium blog, Google says that the benefits of an open format outweigh the pragmatic advantages of supporting H.264. The company believes that innovation, in the long term, will be best served by an open technology ecosystem.

The move will resonate strongly with standards enthusiasts, but it won't help reduce the complexity of the HTML5 video landscape. The split between H.264 and WebM poses some challenges for content producers. Companies that want to use HTML5 to display video on the Internet will likely have to support both codecs in order to reach the broadest possible audience. Microsoft's substantial browser market share and the popularity of Apple's devices simply can't be ignored by content producers. It's likely that many content producers will continue using H.264 and will simply use Flash instead of the HTML5 video tag to display video content to browsers that don't natively support the H.264 codec.

Although Google is taking a forceful position in favor of open codecs in its browser, it's not clear yet if this principled attitude will carry over to other aspects of Google's Web strategy. It seemingly contradicts the company's pragmatic complacency on the issue of proprietary browser plug-ins. It's also unclear if Google's newfound commitment to pushing open video formats will cause the company to rethink its support for H.264 on its popular YouTube website.

Source: Ars Technica

Tags: browsers, Chrome, Google, H.264

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