Media

Google on Web video formats: Industry at an impasse

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Google has been trying to quell some of the controversy that it stirred up earlier this week when it announced that it would limit support for the H.264 video codec in its Chrome browser. Today the search giant published a blog post laying out a longer explanation for the decision.

If, like me, you don’t spend that much time thinking about video formats, this may seem like an arcane point. But Google framed the move as a step forward for openness on the Web, so there have been articles endorsing Google’s viewpoint and others arguing that it’s actually a step backward (more on both arguments in a second).

In today’s post, Google says the organizations working on HTML5, the latest version of the basic language of the Web, had reached “an impasse” over the “video” tag, which should allow browsers to play video without installing a plugin like Flash. Microsoft’s Internet Explorer and Apple’s Safari support H.264 as the “baseline” video codec for HTML5, while Mozilla and Opera do not. Google says it ultimately decided to join Mozilla and Opera because “we genuinely believe that core web technologies need to be open and community developed”, so it’s throwing its weight behind the WebM format:

We acknowledge that H.264 has broader support in the publisher, developer, and hardware community today (though support across the ecosystem for WebM is growing rapidly). However, as stated above, there will not be agreement to make it the baseline in the HTML video standard due to its licensing requirements. To use and distribute H.264, browser and OS vendors, hardware manufacturers, and publishers who charge for content must pay significant royalties—with no guarantee the fees won’t increase in the future. To companies like Google, the license fees may not be material, but to the next great video startup and those in emerging markets these fees stifle innovation.

In other words, Google is saying: “Man, those royalties on H.264 are a drag. I mean, not for us. We’ve got boatloads of money. But for other people.”

Which may be true. As Google itself notes, as the owner of YouTube, the company is “among the largest publishers of video content in the world”, but YouTube’s other infrastructure costs may dwarf the licensing fees. In fact, ZDNet’s Jason Perlow argued earlier that the decision is related to YouTube, but not to the licensing fee. He says that in order to control YouTube’s expenses, Google needs to consolidate the videos into a single format. So why not make that single format one that it controls?

But will the move actually work? As TechCrunch’s MG Siegler notes, the ultimate result is a fragmented video landscape, and one whose demand for plugins seems to defeat one of the main advantages of HTML5. Want to watch an H.264-encoded video in Chrome? You’ll need Flash. Want to watch a WebM video in Internet Explorer? You’ll need some plug-in from WebM that’s been promised for the future.

Google’s blog post does tackle the fragmentation question, but the answer (that the landscape was fragmented already) isn’t very satisfying:

Our choice was to make a decision today and invest in open technology to move the platform forward, or to accept the status quo of a fragmented platform where the pace of innovation may be clouded by the interests of those collecting royalties. Seen in this light, we are choosing to bet on the open web and are confident this decision will spur innovation that benefits users and the industry.

[image via Flickr/Chris Ingrassia]