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Google reaffirms intent to derail HTML5 H.264 video with WebM browser plugins

After igniting a hailstorm of controversy over its intent to drop HTML5’s H.264 support from its Chrome browser, Google has reaffirmed its intent to push its own open WebM video codec via Flash-like plugins for Internet Explorer and Safari users. The reason: Google wants to ship free platforms without incurring external licensing fees.

Google’s Mike Jazayeri detailed the company’s new push behind WebM by writing in a detailed blog posting that the groups involved in developing the HTML5 video distribution standard “are at an impasse. There is no agreement on which video codec should be the baseline standard.”

The impasse that wasn’t there

That “impasse” actually occurred years ago, when Opera and Firefox developer Mozilla began pushing to define Ogg Theora as the baseline for HTML5 video, a position that was staunchly opposed by Apple and Nokia back in 2009, in part because their mobile devices already relied on the hardware optimized H.264 video codec. Conversely, Mozilla rejected H.264 because it involved paying royalty fees.

The HTML5 working group members finally agreed to disagree; rather than defining Ogg Theora or H.264 or anything else as the “baseline” codec for video served via the HTML5 video tag, they left the decision up to the market and to the votes of web users and Internet broadcasters. This decision parallels how HTML works with every other type of media file; there is no baseline graphic or audio format, for example, which allows web publishers to decide for themselves whether to use GIF, JPEG, or PNG graphics formats, or whether to use MP3, AAC, or raw WAV audio files. Modern browsers support them all.

Ever since the debate about HTML5 video was settled in the specification by simply skipping over a defined “baseline” video format, web video producers have overwhelmingly chose to move to H.264. There’s a few good reasons for this. First, H.264 is very efficient at compressing data, and lots of tools exist that can encode data at high quality and high speed.

Secondly, H.264 was already widely supported by consumer devices and applications, in particular Apple’s iPod and iPhone and iTunes, which essentially only play H.264. Apple’s strong push behind H.264 and its openness as a standard that anyone can implement (although there are royalties involved) has encouraged hardware makers to similarly offer mobile devices that very efficiently play H.264 video using hardware acceleration.

Baseline video among browsers: H.264

On the web, all of the major browsers added the ability to play H.264 video apart from Firefox, which held onto the ideal of only supporting Ogg Theora because handling H.264 would involve licensing fees that Mozilla would have to cover for a potentially unlimited number of users that might reuse its code under the GPL license that Firefox is offered under. That makes licensing H.264 prohibitively expensive for Firefox.

That situation created two camps of browsers: one, the commercial browsers from Google (Chrome), Apple (Safari), and Microsoft (Internet Explorer), all of whom have no problem paying for the H.264 license, and the open source browsers from Google (Chromium) and Mozilla (Firefox), neither of which could properly license H.264 for an unlimited global audience under the GPL/LGPL. Google’s new policy shifts Chrome into the second group.

However, the vast majority of Firefox users are running on Windows or Mac OS X, both of which already supply licensed code supporting H.264 video playback. Thus, the only users affected by the “impasse” described by Google are Linux users. This is currently a commercially insignificant demographic, but Google has aspirations of shifting the world to Linux, in mobile devices with its Android OS and among netbooks and low end PCs with its upcoming Chrome OS. If this happens, the tiny market share of Linux among consumers will suddenly matter.

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