Can Google and Mozilla dethrone H.264 on the Web?

Chrome to support WebM, Theora, not H.264

Good news today for open Web proponents: Google has announced it be pushing WebM and Theora for the HTML5 video element in Chrome as well as the open source Chromium project. Potentially bad news for the majority of the Web, which is going to have to ride out a years-long standards format war. Again.

Here's the scoop so far in a nutshell. Once upon a time, the HTML5 video element was going to specify what format(s) should be supported by the browser, and the leading contender was Theora. Then that changed to a comment that it would be "helpful" if browser vendors could all support the same codecs, but "no known codecs... satisfy all the current players." Here "players" refers to the vendors participating in the spec.

This poses a problem, as Apple and Microsoft have favored H.264, which is patented. (It all seems to come back to software patents these days. Pity.) The MPEG Licensing Authority (MPEG LA) has said it won't charge royalties until the last day of 2015, but that doesn't exactly bode well for us all on January 1, 2016 if the Web standardizes on H.264. Unisys sort of spoiled the party for software patent holders by trying a last-ditch royalty grab on GIFs, and since then friends of openness have not taken kindly to limited patent grants. Rightly so. When someone says "you can use this for free until" you really want to know what kind of terms are kicking in the day after that, and avoid developing a dependency on it. Think of this sort of patent "grant" as a balloon mortgage payment that kicks in with a vengance.

If I'm reading the post on the Chromium blog correctly, this means that Chrome will start shipping without native support for H.264. So now we have Apple and Microsoft backing H.264, and Google, Opera, and Firefox all supporting WebM. And users and content producers stuck in the middle.

Microsoft is not giving up on H.264 without a fight. Not only is the company backing the format, but it's also written a plugin for Firefox to ensure that Windows users have the ability to watch H.264 even if they've chosen Firefox — which purposely doesn't support H.264. (See Chris Blizzard's essay on the topic for reasons why.) Microsoft has indicated it won't fight WebM too hard, but it won't be bundling VP8 support in IE. Steve Jobs has made noises about patent concerns with WebM, so it doesn't look likely that we'll be seeing native WebM/VP8 support in Safari or on iOS devices.

Google had already taken a stand on the issue with WebM, though it's taken its time in forcing the issue. No doubt to get its ducks in a row so it will be ready to support WebM on YouTube. Note that WebM and Theora support aren't rolling out immediately — this is just Google announcing its intentions so developers and content producers know which way the wind is blowing.

Google can put a lot of weight behind this simply by making it easy to use WebM with YouTube and hard to use H.264. The added bonus of solidarity between Chrome and Firefox, which together by some measures account for a majority of the browser market at this point, can help as well. But YouTube isn't the only game in town, so it looks like a lot of sites will have H.264 video and a lot of sites will wind up supporting WebM. But this means that users are going to be stuck hunting down (and managing) plugins for the formats that their browser doesn't support. Again. Welcome to the QuickTime/Windows Media battles of the next decade. (Has anyone decided what we're calling this one yet? The tens? The teens?)

What about Flash? It looks like Adobe sees the enemy of its enemy as its Friend. Though <video> support in Chrome and Firefox means that fewer sites have any need of Flash at all, Adobe has said Flash will support VP8. This is probably critical to Google's decision to support Flash on Android and ChromeOS.

Ultimately, I think that most of the Web will go with WebM, but we're going to have a few years of incompatible formats to deal with and Google is going to have some patent suits on its hands in the interim. Even better, it's no longer restricted to our PCs: Now we get to worry about support on mobile devices as well. Make no mistake, I think Google and Mozilla are doing the right things, but it's going to be a bumpy road for end users through the year.

Join the Network World communities on Facebook and LinkedIn to comment on topics that are top of mind.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.