Strong opinions, weakly held

Google’s decision to drop H.264 support in Chrome

Google’s decision to drop native support for the H.264 video codec in Chrome has generated a number of arguments on the Web. Google’s defenders argue that H.264 is not royalty-free and is thus inappropriate for use with HTML5, since the W3C refuses to mandate the use of royalty-encumbered technologies in its specifications. Google’s critics argue that this doing so is a cynical move aimed at bolstering its own codec, WebM, and undermining vendors like Apple and Microsoft who support H.264 and who don’t support WebM or Theora. It seems inarguable that this decision by Google insures that Flash players will continue to be the primary means of showing video on the Web.

The best overview of this issue that I’ve seen is Peter Bright’s piece at Ars Technica: Google’s dropping H.264 from Chrome a step backward for openness.


  1. It doesn’t seem this decision by Google leaves the web video situation any less fragmented than it was last week. It just moves Google from the H.264 column aligned with Apple and Microsoft and puts them in the WebM/Theora column with Firefox/Mozilla and Opera. None of the other players seem to be budging from their positions. Just as it was last week Flash is still the fallback.

  2. I have yet to make up my mind on the issue, but I thought Bright’s piece was good but short term in its thinking. Obviously Google’s stated explanation is insufficient, but it seems equally clear to me that their pragmatism may have wider benefits than he acknowledged if your lens is longer than the next 12 to 24 months.

    Which Google’s almost certainly is.

  3. stephen, much can happen in this landscape quite quickly, but you do realize that H.264 is the 5 year result of an ISO CFP issued in 1998. And that by 2001-2002, numerous vendors were testing independently developed implementations of the spec in both software and hardware. And there has been improvement ever since. (I recall the stories from 2003-2005 talking about how the hardware-acceleration was real but not optimal yet — it’s still improving.) We aren’t talking about the lead time in terms of “people have been arguing about HTML 5 video tag for 2 years.” We are talking about broad industry adoption and improvement over eight years lead.

    I’m not thinking short term: I’m thinking Google just guaranteed another ten years of Flash plug-in, and H.264 patents are likely to expire before another format replaces it now.

  4. It would matter if Chrome had any appreciable market share. Sadly, IE is the 800-lb Gorilla, so if someone wants to watch H.264, they can either use their iPhone or do it at the office.

    Only us smelly geeks will be affected, and our market segment is minuscule.

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