Google Bans H.264 from Chrome Browser, OS: Who Cares?

Microsoft: Google Uses Esperanto Instead of English

by Anton Shilov
01/17/2011 | 06:34 PM

Google, the world's largest Internet services company, last week said that it would not support H.264/MPEG4-AVC codec with its Chrome browser software as well as operating system with the same name. The move seems to be a more than questionable one for many reasons. Microsoft Corp. has already proclaimed it to be similar to switching from English to Esperanto.


Google Chrome browser, as well as a number of other browsers from other vendors, at present supports playback of HTML5 embedded videos that are encoded using H.264/MPEG4-AVC codec. But in two months time Google plans to disable support of the industry-standard H.264 in favour of open-source WebM (VP8) and Theora video codecs so that to focus its resources towards completely open codec technologies. At the same time, Google will continue to support commercial Adobe Flash plugin.

"We are focusing our investments in those technologies that are developed and licensed based on open web principles. We are changing Chrome’s HTML5 <video> support. [...] 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. [...] 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," a statement by Google reads.

The move of Google is not only questionable, but is also a risky one. MPEG LA has already  announced that it would not charge royalties for free videos encoded using H.264/MPEG4-AVC, which automatically means that Google's decision will not change anything for the majority of end-users (they were not supposed to pay for videos or watch additional ads anyway). The WebM format is unknown by the majority of developers and in two months time it will not become so popular among consumers that everyone will have a reason to use it. Moreover, the H.264/MPEG4-AVC can be accelerated by modern graphics processors (which saves energy among other things), the WebM cannot. To make the matters even worse, WebM is not supported by popular encoders, which means that webmasters will have to change their tools to keep videos for Chrome users. Finally, MPEG LA believes that WebM may violate patents, which means that the technology may be banned virtually any day.

Naturally, Google's move boosts importance of Adobe Flash, which is not supported by Apple iOS, but is supported by Google Android. Even though the dynamics of adoption of Google Android is faster than that of iOS, even with it Google cannot dictate standards for the Web.

According to statistics by NetMarketShare, Microsoft Internet Explorer was used by nearly 55% of the Internet users. Mozilla Firefox was used by 18.5%. Only 7.32% and 3.24% utilized Chrome 8.0 and Safari 5.0 browsers, respectively. Even if Chrome is used by 10% of users, there are 90% of the Internet users who do not utilize it.

With rather low market share, Google Chrome may support or not support almost any possible technology: it will hardly make any changes to the market. At some point in future WebM may, perhaps, be more adopted by hardware and software makers; but this point is unlikely to be close: open-source technologies (software, codecs) tend to change and without specs cast in stone it is hard to expect commercial companies to adopt them.