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WebM vs. H.264: Google Bets Big on Itself

WebM vs. H.264: Google Bets Big on Itself

Chrome will soon turn its back on the H.264 codec in favor of Google's own WebM technology. It's risky to ditch a working standard such as H.264 for one under development, but there are potential benefits for both Google and anyone now paying licensing fees. Then again, there are questions about whether WebM will be ready for prime time -- and to what degree a standards feud will encumber users.

By Richard Adhikari
01/14/11 5:00 AM PT

Google announced Tuesday that its Chrome browser will stop supporting the H.264 codec in a couple of months and will support its own WebM and Ogg Theora technologies instead.

The announcement set off a firestorm. Some contended the move is a step backward for openness; others speculated that it might create a roadblock for adoption of the HTML5 standard; a few questioned whether or not the move would adversely impact adoption of the Chrome browser.

A Microsoft evangelist posted a blog entry criticizing Google's move, but Mozilla and Opera expressed their support. Apple lurked in the background, saying nothing publicly.

Google, Microsoft and Apple did not respond to requests for comment by press time.

Google's Hammer Blow

Google's announcement of its switch from H.264 to WebM and Theora in the Chrome browser came in a post Tuesday on the Chromium blog by product manager Mike Jazayeri.

The aim of the move is to enable open innovation, Jazayeri said.

The announcement triggered a post on the MSDN blog by Microsoft evangelist Tim Sneath, equating support for WebM and Theora to support for the artificial languages Esperanto and Klingon.

It also drew expressions of support from observers.

Observations About Google's Move

Google's announcement is seen by some as a move toward open standards.

"We've always supported Ogg, and then WebM, with our desktop browser at Opera," Opera spokesperson Thomas Ford told TechNewsWorld. "We feel video on the Web should be based on an open standard if we want to incorporate it as widely as possible, and that means things like WebM and Ogg Theora."

Mike Shaver, vice president of engineering at the Mozilla Foundation, hailed Google's action as "a great move."

While it's risky to ditch a working standard such as H.264 for one under development, like WebM, there are possible advantages to the decision, Carl Howe, director of anywhere consumer research at the Yankee Group, told TechNewsWorld.

"Google is developing the WebM technology, so in many ways it's just betting that it can develop a good video standard using open source faster and better than a standards body can," Howe explained.

There are doubts, though, that WebM is up to snuff.

"The WebM video container technology and its VP8 codec are still being developed and refined and can hardly be called 'industrial strength,' let alone having been even narrowly adopted so far," Al Hilwa, a program director at IDC, told TechNewsWorld.

"To give content owners or developers a couple of months to adjust may be essentially tantamount to asking them to forget about supporting the Chrome browser," Hilwa added.

Google will replace H.264 in a couple of months.

H.264: The Money Angle

The problem with H.264 is that it costs money. Patents for the technologies in H.264 are held by 27 companies, including Microsoft and Apple, and administered by MPEG LA on their behalf.

In August, MPEG LA declared that it would not charge royalties for the H.264 video code from 2011 through 2015.

But Mozilla's Shaver characterized that move as a smokescreen. The announcement merely makes it free to distribute content that people have already licensed to encode, he said. Decoding that content will need a license, as will developing the content.

Smaller companies such as Opera cannot afford to pay the licensing fees MPEG LA imposes for using H.264.

"Our desktop browser has more than 50 million users, and for us to include support that we have to pay a per-user royalty fee for becomes not very practical," Opera's Ford pointed out.

Even Google's fat wallet is suffering from the licensing fees.

"Google's motivation is in the right place, because H.264 licenses are expensive for content owners and software makers," IDC's Hilwa stated.

No Love From Computer Firms

Microsoft and Apple support H.264 -- and they should, because they hold some of the patents for that technology and therefore make money off the licensing fees.

There are fears that these vendors' lack of support for WebM may impact the Chrome browser.

"I love Google's disruptive instinct to democratize video publishing," IDC's Hilwa said.

"But this is premature given where VP8 is relative to H.264, and because desktops won't support it," he remarked.

"Obviously, Microsoft and Apple are both part of MPEG LA, the group that controls H.264," Opera's Ford said. "But we believe that Google's throwing their considerable weight behind WebM and other open standards is a huge win for the Web."

Furether, "Microsoft doesn't let anyone sell Windows without Internet Explorer," the Yankee Group's Howe pointed out. "So consumers always have a fallback position. If their Chrome browser doesn't work, they can always launch IE."

Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss?

Overall, this situation is really a battle over to what degree standards can be constrained by intellectual property rights, Yankee Group's Howe suggested.

Most technical standards for doing things like building a house don't have patents associated with them, so they're broadly used, but licensing the rights to use a standard, as is happening with H.264, curtails adoption, Howe remarked. On the other hand, Google holds the patents to WebM.

"The question is, who are you going to trust to not hold standards licensees to ransom? Little MPEG or giant Google?" Howe asked. "At this point, I don't think we know who is the bigger bandit."


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