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Google to remove H.264 support from Chrome, but why?

HTML5 is an exciting proposition. Simply add a <video> tag and you can get web pages to embed video without the need for plugins. Strangely Google are moving the support for the ever popular H.264 codec in future versions of Chrome. We ask ourselves why?

The company claim that they want to support ‘open codecs’ instead and while it is a praiseworthy reason, they are only going to be supporting two format. Theora and their own format – the WebM codec.

There has been much debate over the HTML5 support for codecs, which the original specification choosing the Theora algorithm for the <video> tag. This decision was not a popular one, with many people involved in web standards unhappy for a variety of reasons. This had an impact and the language was changed so that it could avoid the reliance on any particular algorithm.

Microsoft and Apple, in a rare turn of events agreed upon H.264 while Firefox picked Theora and WebM. Chrome put their support behind Theora. WebM and H.264 but are dropping H.264 just like Firefox. Google have stated that H.264 is not an open codec and therefore wont be supporting it.

The interesting topic of discussion however, is that H.264 is actually an open standard. It was designed by a notable list of experts from throughout the industry who involved two standards organisations ITU and ISO. This makes H.264 an open standard in the same way that JPEG images are used across the net. The same principle applies to the ISO 9660 filesystem.

WebM’s VP8 or Theora have actually not been organised by a standards body such as ISO because VP8 was developed by the company ON2, just before the companies buyout by Google last year. When it was developed VP8 was actually a commercial product, licensed by ON2 to the public and they kept the algorithms and coding of the codec private. Originally the design was proprietary.

Google focus now on community strength behind WebM but they have yet to submit WebM to ISO or ITu, or even SMPTE for standardisation. They are keeping it under their control, which in actuality means that it is not an open codec by definition of the term.

H.264 isn’t a royalty free platform however as the ISO and ITU do not stipulate that the members working on various standards and specifications have to give up the patent claims to cover their technology. H.264 is an open standard but there are hundreds of patents which cover the various code techniques that is uses to create high quality compression video. Anyone who wants to distribute an implementation of H.264 has to obtain licenses for all the patented techniques they use and there is a cost involved. VP8 and Theora are royalty free and both have been created to avoid current video patents. Theora has been designed so as not to use any patented techniques on any level. As Google now own ON2, VP8 is authorised to be used in any application without payment of any royalty.

We can’t help but ask that if Google are willing to remove features from Chrome then why can they support and ship Flash within the very same software? They also support AAC and MP3 audio when tagged with <audio> and both of these compression platforms have many patents involved and they aren’t royalty free either. They have yet to announce the removal of either of these from future versions of the browser.

Is fewer choices really better? is this helping the open web standards? It looks as if Flash is still going to be the single most effective platform for delivery of web video.

KitGuru says: Inconsistent? we think so.

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