Do The Laws Of Robotics Apply To Google? WebM May Test It

Google's supreme law is do no evil, but will they violate that law for the greater good of a standard video codec for the entire web?

OK, how well do you remember Asimov's laws of robotics? If you are a sci fi fan at all, you had to have read Asimov. If you read Asimov, you had to have spent some time thinking about the permeations of the laws of robotics. Google now finds itself in a R. Daneel Olivaw -like conundrum regarding the VP8 video codec and the future of video on the web.

For those of you who don't remember or heaven forbid never read Asimov, here are the three laws of Robotics:

1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

2. A robot must obey any orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law

Later on the Zeroth law was added that said: A robot may not harm a human being, unless he finds a way to prove that in the final analysis, the harm done would benefit humanity in general.

So what does all of this scifi have to do with Google and video? Well Google's first law is "to do no evil". Whether you believe they still abide by that law or not is open to debate. But more importantly Google believes it. But what if doing a little bit of evil, would serve to greater benefit the web in general?

Google today announced that indeed they had open sourced the VP8 video codec they bought in the On2 acquisition. It is now called the WebM Project. In the blog for WebM, Google lays out over 40 partners who will support the new open source video standard, including Chrome, Mozzila, Opera and Adobe. Conspicuous by their absence is Microsoft and Apple.

As I have written before, Microsoft and Apple have backed another horse in the video in HTML5 race. The proprietary h.264 standard by the MPEG group (any one surprised that Apple and Microsoft picked the proprietary standard?) is the choice for them. This means that Apple's Safari browser, iPhone, iPad and iTouch and Microsoft's IE Explorer may not support the Google WebM standard.

To be fair I have read that Microsoft though not supporting WebM out of the box will have downloadable and installable support for it in IE. But I don't know that for sure.

This sets up a scenario where it is basically Apple and Microsoft against Google and the rest of the world. But the real losers will be you, I and developers who want to use video in their web apps. Without a standard it may work on one device and not another. A developer may have it supported if you are a Chrome user, but not if you are an iPhone user.  At the end of the day that makes us all losers.

Now Google has a WMD here. YouTube is it. If YouTube did not support h.264 and decided that WebM was the only standard it supports, could Microsoft or Apple dare stand in their way? Who owns YouTube? Google. As the author of this blog says, "will it (Google) strong-arm competitors for the “greater good” of open formats?

Normally if Google were to use its YouTube leverage to force the rest of the web world to support its own standard there would be a great outcry of Google "doing evil". Violating its own first law. But could there be a "zeroth law" exception here where Google can do a little evil for the greater good of us all? Would anyone be bothered by Google doing a little bit of big brother and doing what may be self-serving but in our own interests as well?

I for one say no. Go ahead Google, bring down the YouTube hammer. I don't want to live in a VHS/Betamax video future. We will all be better served in this case if there was one open standard that we can all rally behind and as a result enjoy rich media content on the web no matter what device or browser we use.

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