Google Dropping H.264 Codec Support in Chrome

Google announced on Tuesday that it plans to support open video codecs in its Chrome Web browser going forward, and it will drop support for the H.264 video codec.

The announcement is aimed at Web developers, alerting them to the transition, which is expected to occur "in the next couple of months," according to Google's' announcement. The Chrome browser will support the WebM (VP8) and Ogg Theora video codecs. While Google previously supported the proprietary H.264 video codec, it won't in the near future.

"Though H.264 plays an important role in video, as our goal is to enable open innovation, support for the codec will be removed and our resources directed towards completely open codec technologies," Google explained in its announcement.

Video codec support is an important consideration for Web developers taking advantage of native browser support for video using HTML 5 markup. Even though HTML 5 is still at the Working Draft stage at the Worldwide Web Consortium, top browser makers have been showcasing HTML 5 capabilities already supported by their browsers, including native video support that doesn't require an Adobe Flash or Microsoft Silverlight plug-in.

Unfortunately, W3C HTML 5 Working Group participants did not agree on a video codec standard for HTML 5. That fragmentation may cause some inconvenience for Web developers, but Web surfers won't be affected -- at least in the short term, according to Al Hilwa, IDC's program director for applications development software.

"In the short term, it has no direct effect on users," Hilwa said in a phone interview. "In the short term, though, it could have an effect on developers because they have got a very short time to figure out if their Web site or app is going to be usable in Chrome."

Hilwa added that Google could lose some traction on its browser because "H.264 is the most dominant standard for video content out there."

The H.264 video codec contains patented technologies held by a number of companies under the MPEG LA intellectual property umbrella organization. Apple and Microsoft are among those patent holders, and both of their browsers support H.264 video. Hardware vendors, independent software vendors and browser makers have to pay H.264 licensing costs if the technology is used in their products. However, users are now granted no charge for using H.264 technology to view Internet video for the life of MPEG LA's license, according to an August MPEG LA announcement.

Google's VP8 video codec technology, brought into open source under a WebM open Web media project announced in May, is following a different course. It's available under a BSD-style license that entails no royalty costs.

"People had high hopes that the Google acquisition of [VP8] WebM and putting it out on open source might help get some consensus around adoption, but perhaps that was a bit naïve," Hilwa said. "Microsoft and Apple, which hold a lot of patents on H.264, are collecting money for it, and have no interest in using something open source. Microsoft certainly isn't going to put a lot of open source in their browser if they can help it." 

The following table shows the current status of browser support for the three main codecs, H.264, Ogg Theora and VP8.

Browser Support for Video Codecs With HTML 5
H.264 Ogg Theora VP8
Apple Safari - -
Google Chrome Google Chrome Google Chrome
Microsoft IE 9 - Microsoft IE 9
- Mozilla Firefox Mozilla Firefox
- Opera Opera

Dean Hachamovitch, Microsoft's general manager of Internet Explorer, said back in May that Internet Explorer 9 would support VP8, but only if the user installs the VP8 codec on Windows. IE 9 is currently in beta release, and rumor has it that IE 9 will advance to release candidate status late this month.

Meanwhile, the WebM platform is slowly advancing. The WebM team plans to release "the first VP8 hardware encoder IP in the first quarter of 2011," according to a WebM announcement. At the Computer Electronics Show last week in Las Vegas, semiconductor vendor Rockchip showed off "the first" silicon-implemented VP8 decoder in a tablet running Google's Android operating system. The WebM/VP8 video codec is currently licensed to more than 20 silicon partners, according to the WebM announcement.

Ironically, Google's announcement that it plans to drop H.264 support may bring plug-ins back into the browser fold. The reason is that Adobe supports H.264 in its Flash plug-in, and Chrome supports Flash, so users can just use Flash to get around the lack of H.264 support in Chrome. Supposedly, however, HTML 5 was to make such video plug-ins unnecessary.

"I don't think plug-ins were ever going to go away," Hilwa said. "Plug-ins were born at a time when we had standards but they were imperfect and they did not quite meet the requirement because standards are too slow moving. Macromedia evolved Flash that was much faster moving in terms of doing animations and the interactivity that people needed on the Web."

People waiting for this video codec issue to go away might have to wait a bit.

"The only certainly is there's going to be some level of fragmentation for many years to come around HTML 5, and certainly the video standard," Hilwa said.


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