Google recently announced that it would stop directly supporting the H.264 video format in Chrome, favouring its own WebM format going forward. (It acquired the assets behind WebM when it bought On2 in 2009.)There are several ways to interpret this move, such as Google simply favouring a video format it controls over one it doesn’t, Google putting more weight behind Adobe Flash, etc. (Google’s lame reason is that its goal is “to enable open innovation.” Uh huh.)
But this is also an attack on Apple, the latest in Google’s escalating war with Apple.
- Since Chrome is going to natively support WebM and not H.264, it makes sense that YouTube would eventually move its videos over to WebM, and eventually stop making H.264 copies of everything, so as not to require 2X the storage space.
- Since Apple is such a huge H.264 supporter — and has performance-boosting H.264 hardware decoders built-in to its iOS devices like the iPhone and iPad — it’s unlikely to become a WebM supporter or build-in WebM hardware decoders (once they exist) to its gadgets. Especially given how many other video companies have adopted H.264, such as Netflix, Hulu, Major League Baseball, etc.
- Therefore, there could someday be a time when some or all of YouTube won’t play on iOS devices because some or all YouTube videos aren’t in H.264 and iOS devices can’t natively play WebM videos. This may take many years, or it may happen sooner, or maybe never. But it’s a possibility. And YouTube is such a big video site (and was a strong initial partner for iOS) that it would be considered a blow to Apple. Google Android and Chrome OS, of course, will probably be optimised for WebM, something Google may try to use as a marketing advantage.
- If Apple someday does have to support Google’s video format for YouTube to work on an iPhone — either natively, or through a plugin, or maybe even through Flash — Google can laugh about that.
- Google’s move to strip out native H.264 support in Chrome means Chrome users would have to use Flash to play back H.264 video. That’s fine, because Flash is pretty ubiquitous. But it could also be considered anti-Apple because of Apple’s hard line against Flash on iOS devices, and Flash’s generally crappy performance on Mac computers (relative to PCs).
- It’s a little weird that Google is giving Flash such a boost here, because Google doesn’t have (that we know) any financial interest in Flash’s and Adobe’s future. Maybe it’s all about locking people into Flash so Flash ads continue to flourish at the expense of HTML5? Maybe it’s to annoy Apple? Maybe Google wants to buy Adobe? We confess we don’t know, but it’s a bit odd.
Big deal? Not yet — not from a consumer’s standpoint, especially. Very little is likely to change for the typical user for a while. But if you work in video, you’re definitely thinking about it.
And someday, it could mean lower availability — or less efficient playback — of YouTube video on Apple devices.