Google drops H.264, promotes Theora, WebM

By Nate Cochrane on Jan 13, 2011 10:26 AM
Filed under Software

Change to open-source video standards throws web and mobile developers a googly.

Just when content developers thought they had their collective head around video on the web and mobile devices, Google threw them a curveball today by dropping the heir apparent, internationally recognised and supported H.264 standard for upstart open-source alternatives.

In a blog post today, Chrome product manager Mike Jazayeri wrote the search-advertising giant will remove native support for the popular H.264 video-coding system from the No.3 browser "in the next couple months" and back emerging video platforms the WebM Project and Theora.

Google's YouTube was the most prominent major distributor of online video that supported WebM and was trying to wean creators off Adobe's proprietary Flash for the next web standard, HTML5.

The decision divided users of Chrome that accounts for about 13.5 percent of the browser market, content creators fearing poor adoption of Google's anointed standards would set back their attempts to cast video for the web and mobile devices while increasing the cost and complexity of coding and managing content.

Flash fell foul of Apple that also supports H.264 on its Safari browser, online video store and its devices including the iPad and iPhone leaving content creators needing to encode video in three exclusive formats to reach their audiences.

The format variously known as H.264, MPEG-4 part 10 or Advanced Video Coding was the most popular high-quality video encoding and decoding ("codec") standard on consumer electronics devices and the web today.

It was used in almost all modern devices that displayed video including games consoles, mobile phones, flat-screen TVs and digital set-top boxes for television reception.

It was standardised over about 10 years by specialists at the UN's Video Coding Experts Group and the international standards organisation's and the electrotechnical  commision's Moving Picture Experts Group.

Justifying Google's decision, Jazayeri wrote the nascent video systems were experiencing "rapid evolution" owing to their "open and community-driven development model".

"The WebM Project was launched last year to bring an open, world-class video codec to the web," he wrote. "Since the launch, we've seen first-hand the benefits of an open development model."

He wrote that in that time performance improved, while compatibility was maintained across devices even as acceptance for the open-source alternatives rose.

"We are focusing our investments in those technologies that are developed and licensed based on open web principles," he wrote.

"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.

"We are announcing [these changes] now to give content publishers and developers using HTML video an opportunity to make any necessary changes to their sites."

WebM and Theora were also supported by later versions of browsers Firefox and Opera web browsers, accounting for about 40 percent of users combined, and Videolan Controller (VLC) open-source media player.

The open-source technologies were available royalty-free while devices and software that created or read H.264 videos were required to pay patent royalties to a third party on behalf of the technology's owners.

In August, MPEG LA, which administered the licence collection, said that creators of non-broadcast video encoded in the standard would not have to pay royalties for the length of time of the current licence, which will be updated in five years.

 
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