Google announced it would remove support for a key video technology from its Chrome browser yesterday, and the tech community immediately began debating the company’s motives and what it all means.The short answer: Google is OK losing with losing a few Chrome users if it can influence Web standards to its own benefit.
The technology is the H.264 codec, one of several methods for compressing and decompressing video. H.264 is broadly supported — Microsoft is big on it, Apple uses it, and hardware makers have built support for it into graphics processors.
Most Internet video — including YouTube — uses Adobe’s Flash technology, which has support for H.264 built in. Chrome supports Flash, so users won’t see any problems.
The problem will arise when a Web designer decides to skip Flash and embed video using HTML5, an emerging set of standards for Web video. If the video is encoded in H.264, it won’t play in the browser. Instead, users will have to launch another app, like the Windows Media Player or QuickTime player, or will have to use some sort of Chrome plug-in. Google hopes that this will warn developers away from H.264, and that they will use a non-patented codec instead, like Ogg Theora or Google’s own WebM.
That’s not likely because H.264 is already so widely supported elsewhere. Chrome only has 10% market share. That’s twice what it had a year ago, but still not enough to influence Web standards.
So this will turn into one of those niggling annoyances that could drive Chrome users to switch back to another browser.
Google claims to object to H.264 because it’s patented. It happens that the patents are owned by a group of companies that includes Microsoft and Apple … but not Google. If Google wants to support H.264 in Chrome, it’s got to pay licensing fees to its competitors. The fees aren’t big — they max out at $5 million per year. But this isn’t about the money. This is about the precedent.
If Flash is the present, HTML5 is the future. If H.264 becomes an officially accepted way of encoding video for HTML5, Google’s competitors benefit. They may not earn much, but the precedent of a patented technology owned by Google competitors being part of a standard? That’s too much for Google to take lying down.