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Google drops H.264 for WebM

27 January 2011
Google drops H.264 for WebM

Google is ending support for the H.264 video codec in its Chrome web browser, preferring its own WebM format, writes David Fox. In future, its resources will be "directed towards completely open codec technologies," explained Google Product Manager, Mike Jazayeri.

"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."

The WebM Project was launched last year "to bring an open, world-class video codec to the web," but most analysis indicates that WebM is less efficient and delivers lower quality video than H.264.

However, Jazayeri has seen: "rapid performance improvements in the video encoder and decoder thanks to contributions from dozens of developers across the community; broad adoption by browser, tools, and hardware vendors; [and] independent (yet compatible) implementations that not only bring additional choice for users, publishers, and developers but also foster healthy competition and innovation."

Nevertheless, is wrong to call H.264 a closed format. In fact, it is one of the more open standards on the internet, having been developed with the help of numerous companies, all of whom have pooled their patents and made it available for use on any devices. Admittedly, it is not royalty free. These royalties are capped, and payable via MPEG-LA, by equipment manufacturers, software developers, and the suppliers of paid-for content – there are no royalties for free internet use.

WebM isn’t standardised, nor indeed is Adobe’s Flash (not a video codec, but the way Chrome users will be able to view H.264), and both were developed by a single company. However, both are royalty free and Google has made WebM’s source code open – both Theora and WebM may be susceptible to patent challenges in future (it has been implied that some MPEG-LA patents may be applicable, but it would be unlikely that these challenges would be made until one of them gains enough traction to be a worthwhile target – Google hasn’t yet offered patent indemnification).

Of course, if Google really wants to support only open-sourced formats, will it also drop support for Flash – which will become the only way of viewing H.264 content on Chrome once the changes are implemented (probably in a few months time)? Chrome currently comes bundled with Flash.

YouTube, which is owned by Google, mainly uses H.264 to encode video (viewed then via Flash – or H.264 in Safari or the latest version of Internet Explorer), so does this mean that it will re-encode its entire library using WebM? This would be a vast job (more than 35 hours of video is uploaded to YouTube every minute).

Ultimately, this decision probably won’t have much effect on browser users, as there will almost certainly be plug ins available for Safari and IE to run WebM (they are easy to add codecs to – and all the WebM plug in would have to do is to simply enable itself in HTML5). Chrome, Opera and Firefox aren’t as easy for users to add codecs to, as they come with their own pack of bundled decoders. But Google will obviously hope that content providers will back its stance.

From a broadcast perspective, what will this change mean?

Google’s choice will result in two main types of web browser: Firefox, Chrome and Opera, which won’t support H.264 (but will play WebM and Theora); and Internet Explorer 9 and Safari, which will support H.264 (but could add anything via plug ins).

However, all of them will be able to play H.264 via Flash, unless the browser is running on any of Apple’s iOS devices (iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch), which can’t run Flash, but are built to run H.264 directly using hardware decoding. Indeed, most computers, mobile devices, or anything now being used to view video downloads typically has this H.264 hardware built in, which is partly why it has become so popular. Apparently, such hardware is being developed for WebM, but this will take some time to gain any traction. Google’s own Android operating system, used by many mobile devices, is currently optimised for H.264 (and the newest versions can run Flash too), but Google has not indicated that it will move to WebM for this platform too.

So, what should a broadcaster or content owner do?

Given that every browser or mobile device can run either H.264 direct or via Flash, and almost every major video site supports these formats, there seems to be little need to do anything more. Unless YouTube moves completely to WebM, Google then drops support for Flash, and the other open source browsers concur, there is probably no need to adopt WebM – and that is unlikely to happen. However, what it does mean is that there is now little prospect of Flash being usurped in favour of the direct playing of H.264 via the HTML5 <video> tag, so any hope of simplifying your web offerings is dashed for the foreseeable future.

http://blog.chromium.org/
Google is ending support for the H.264 video codec in its Chrome web browser, preferring its own WebM format, writes David Fox. In future, its resources will be "directed towards completely open codec technologies," explained Google Product Manager, Mike Jazayeri.

"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."

The WebM Project was launched last year "to bring an open, world-class video codec to the web," but most analysis indicates that WebM is less efficient and delivers lower quality video than H.264.

However, Jazayeri has seen: "rapid performance improvements in the video encoder and decoder thanks to contributions from dozens of developers across the community; broad adoption by browser, tools, and hardware vendors; [and] independent (yet compatible) implementations that not only bring additional choice for users, publishers, and developers but also foster healthy competition and innovation."

Nevertheless, is wrong to call H.264 a closed format. In fact, it is one of the more open standards on the internet, having been developed with the help of numerous companies, all of whom have pooled their patents and made it available for use on any devices. Admittedly, it is not royalty free. These royalties are capped, and payable via MPEG-LA, by equipment manufacturers, software developers, and the suppliers of paid-for content – there are no royalties for free internet use.

WebM isn’t standardised, nor indeed is Adobe’s Flash (not a video codec, but the way Chrome users will be able to view H.264), and both were developed by a single company. However, both are royalty free and Google has made WebM’s source code open – both Theora and WebM may be susceptible to patent challenges in future (it has been implied that some MPEG-LA patents may be applicable, but it would be unlikely that these challenges would be made until one of them gains enough traction to be a worthwhile target – Google hasn’t yet offered patent indemnification).

Of course, if Google really wants to support only open-sourced formats, will it also drop support for Flash – which will become the only way of viewing H.264 content on Chrome once the changes are implemented (probably in a few months time)? Chrome currently comes bundled with Flash.

YouTube, which is owned by Google, mainly uses H.264 to encode video (viewed then via Flash – or H.264 in Safari or the latest version of Internet Explorer), so does this mean that it will re-encode its entire library using WebM? This would be a vast job (more than 35 hours of video is uploaded to YouTube every minute).

Ultimately, this decision probably won’t have much effect on browser users, as there will almost certainly be plug ins available for Safari and IE to run WebM (they are easy to add codecs to – and all the WebM plug in would have to do is to simply enable itself in HTML5). Chrome, Opera and Firefox aren’t as easy for users to add codecs to, as they come with their own pack of bundled decoders. But Google will obviously hope that content providers will back its stance.

From a broadcast perspective, what will this change mean?

Google’s choice will result in two main types of web browser: Firefox, Chrome and Opera, which won’t support H.264 (but will play WebM and Theora); and Internet Explorer 9 and Safari, which will support H.264 (but could add anything via plug ins).

However, all of them will be able to play H.264 via Flash, unless the browser is running on any of Apple’s iOS devices (iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch), which can’t run Flash, but are built to run H.264 directly using hardware decoding. Indeed, most computers, mobile devices, or anything now being used to view video downloads typically has this H.264 hardware built in, which is partly why it has become so popular. Apparently, such hardware is being developed for WebM, but this will take some time to gain any traction. Google’s own Android operating system, used by many mobile devices, is currently optimised for H.264 (and the newest versions can run Flash too), but Google has not indicated that it will move to WebM for this platform too.

So, what should a broadcaster or content owner do?

Given that every browser or mobile device can run either H.264 direct or via Flash, and almost every major video site supports these formats, there seems to be little need to do anything more. Unless YouTube moves completely to WebM, Google then drops support for Flash, and the other open source browsers concur, there is probably no need to adopt WebM – and that is unlikely to happen. However, what it does mean is that there is now little prospect of Flash being usurped in favour of the direct playing of H.264 via the HTML5 <video> tag, so any hope of simplifying your web offerings is dashed for the foreseeable future.

http://blog.chromium.org/

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