Just when it appeared that the online video industry was moving toward a video standard, with H.264 video playback in HTML5 – more chaos ensued with Google's announcement of its plans to phase out support for H.264 in its Chrome browser, in favor of open source formats like its own WebM or Theora. Like shot heard round the world, the news spread quickly throughout the web sparking a flurry of commentary and debate on the reasoning behind Google's decision. The overwhelming response within the online video industry is that this move by Google will set the adoption of HTML5 video back even further, and for online video publishers, this creates even more confusion and potentially a massive increase in video publishing costs.
The Open Source Video Standards Stalemate
The stakes are high in the battle for a video standard for the web and mobile devices. It's a war that's been brewing for several years with open source advocates pushing for a free and open codec unrestricted of proprietary licenses for the HTML5 video element, and an industry that has been built on a widely adopted yet proprietary and licensed video codec. But the lack of a single codec standard that is supported across web browsers is not only a serious issue for publishers but a stalemate for the industry.
WebM and VP8
WebM is a relatively new media file format Google introduced last May at the i/O developers conference, as a royalty free open source license packaging its VP8 video codec and the open source audio codec Vorbis, as part of Google's wider open source initiative called WebM Project. The goal of the WebM project, Google says, is "dedicated to developing a high-quality, open video format for the web that is freely available to everyone." WebM was launched with support by Mozilla, Opera, Adobe, Google and more than forty other publishers, software and hardware vendors. Absent from the list companies at launch was of course, Apple and also Microsoft, which back H.264 in Safari and IE9. However, Microsoft has said it will support VP8 as well. Google acquired the VP8 codec when with its acquisition of video codec maker On2 Technologies last year.
H.264/MPEG-4 Part 10 (AVC)
H.264/AVC video format is the digital video coding industry standard H.264/MPEG-4 Part 10, or AVC used widely in set-top boxes, media player and other personal computer software, mobile devices, Blu-ray Disc players and recorders, game machines, personal media player devices and still and video cameras. Apple has become most outspoken proponent of AVC, and backs it as the standard video codec used for its HTML5 video compatible mobile iDevices like the iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch, as well as for iTunes videos. Several months ago, the MPEG LA reversed its decision and freed up the license of H.264, and will not charge royalties for any content that is free to consumers. It was speculated by many that the move by the MPEG LA was spurred on by Google's release of VP8 as an open source royalty free video codec.
Why Did Google Decide To Abandon H.264?
In a short post this past week on the Chromium Blog: HTML Video Codec Support in Chrome, Google Product Manager Mike Jazayeri said that its decision was a move to make Chrome consistent with the codecs already supported by the open Chromium project:
"We expect even more rapid innovation in the web media platform in the coming year and are focusing our investments in those technologies that are developed and licensed based on open web principles. To that end, we are changing Chrome's HTML5 (video) support to make it consistent with the codecs already supported by the open Chromium project. Specifically, we are supporting the WebM (VP8) and Theora video codecs, and will consider adding support for other high-quality open codecs in the 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."
Some interesting commentary on Slashdot pointed to more scrupulous plans that Google is manipulating the market for selfish reasons to reap hundreds of billions in WebM devices. Also, on Daring Fireball, John Gruber asked 5 Simple Questions for Google Regarding Chrome's Dropping of H.264 which many of us would like to know the answers.
What About Those That Started To Adopt H.264 For HTML5?
"These changes will occur in the next couple months but we are announcing them now to give content publishers and developers using HTML (video) an opportunity to make any necessary changes to their sites."
Okay, so what this means is that by default, the Chrome browser will automatically playback videos encoded in either the WebM or Theora open source standards, but will need a plug-in just like the Flash Player plug-in to play anything encoded in H.264 – which is actually the more widely adopted standard used throughout the industry. H.264 and can be decoded by hardware in many devices, like tablets and mobile phones.
So now content publishers will have to go back to encoding multiple versions of their videos in different file formats and codecs, primarily in H.264, WebM and even Flash. Or for many publishers, take the easy way out and go back to delivering video in Flash, since the Flash Player is baked into Chrome and Flash video will play on all the browsers.
Many are speculating that this is all about timed announcement to steal Apple's thunder of its Verizon iPhone announcement, at least in the short term, and also upset Apple's domination in the mobile device and digital media industry. Others are calling Google hypocritical for dropping H.264 and not Flash, which requires a plug-in.
ReadWriteWeb calls this current situation, A Stalemate of Standards: What H.264 Means for the Average User, and spoke with blip.tv Co-founder Justin Day who said that Google's move is a step back to the Dark Ages and also Michael Critz, a freelance interactive and motion graphic designer, who agreed that this is a regression for the average user.
According to Day:
"I think from our standpoint this looks like a regression. We're all for open formats, but they should be chosen based on their merits, not merely their license. This move means that Chrome users will suffer from a worse user experience because they will need to rely on Flash fallback."
Last month blip.tv announced it has adopted HTML5 as the standard video player on its site after years of serving Flash video. Day says that there really is no competition between WebM and H.264 for the content producer because of the low cost tools available to create higher quality video using H.264.
As a content creator, Critz agreed:
"There isn't a desktop WebM conversion tool that worth a pile of beans to what's available now for H.264. I'm often traveling for video shoots. If I'm on a shoot in Miami and working all day then I get back to my hotel room I know I can depend on my Turbo.264 encoder to give me hardware accelerated H.264 encoding that I can use online, in Flash, on my producers' iPad, and on my clients' iPhones and Blackberry phones."
In a detailed report on Ars Technica, Peter Bright wrote that, Google's dropping H.264 from Chrome a step backward for openness and creates more work and cost for video publishers.
"Video distributors wanting to support both Flash and HTML5 users will have to encode twice; once in H.264, for Flash users, and again in WebM, for HTML5 users. This doubles the computational cost, doubles the storage requirements, and as an added bonus will tend to hurt quality. This is inconvenient for a small site with one or two videos; for sites like SmugMug it's an enormous headache. They can either suffer the doubled costs and complexity, or ignore HTML5 altogether and stick with Flash.
It looks like sticking with Flash and ignoring the (video) tag is indeed what SmugMug may end up doing. And who can blame them? Flash works for almost every Internet user, and Flash supports H.264."
Jan Ozer also commented while Chrome only has a small percentage of the web browser market it will be interesting to consider what's to come. He advised producers and publishers to check their wallets because they'll find less money in it, now that we're well on our way to a Two-codec world.
Will This Disrupt Chrome's Market Share?
As far as browsers go, they are waging their own war and actually, Chrome is a relatively small player compared to Internet Explorer and Firefox which is second to IE. But in just about two years since its launch Chrome's market share is currently about 13.5%, which is about twice that of Opera and Safari combined.
Both Firefox and Opera lack native H.264 support, so combined with Chrome, the browsers without H.264 support total 44.05%. Internet Explorer has the largest market share with 44.53%, Safari has 5.8%
Apple, Google, Adobe & The Video Format Wars
Along with the browsers, the opponents on each side of the format war are Apple, Google and Adobe continue to wrestle control over video formats, and I've said before the battle continues and publishers and consumers are caught in the struggle. Now with even more fragmentation within the online video ecosystem no support for common video codecs across the industry, we are even further away from reaching an online and mobile video standard anytime soon.
For video publishers, it's clear that there will be additional costs involved in delivering video to all web browsers and mobile devices. For companies in the video encoding business, this must be your lucky day.