Chrome Drops H.264: Good, Bad or Indifferent?

The announcement by Google that they will be dropping support for the H.264 video codec from their Chrome browser pivots nicely off my (fairly) recent posts about the problems with web standards. There has been much discussion in the wake of the announcement about the merits of open versus proprietary technologies. Some have accused Google of hypocrisy since they bundle the quintessentially proprietary Flash plugin with Chrome. On the other hand, as Robert Accettura points out, Flash could serve as a trojan horse to get WebM (Google's royalty-free H.264 alternative) into browsers that don't support it natively. This could turn out to be a vital consideration since market share will play a key role in guiding publisher's decisions about which codecs to support. It's nice to see open standards advocates seeing the light when it comes to the potential of Flash and browser plug-ins in general to smooth adoption of new technologies.

What I haven't seen discussed quite as much are two other relevant topics. The first is the impact of Google's decision on end users. Call me unprincipled, but all I really care about is whether a video I want to watch will play on my desktop computers and mobiles devices (which my girlfriend has taken to referring to collectively as "iCrap"). From this perspective, I couldn't imagine a better outcome than having all video on the web switch to H.264. It's technologically state-of-the-art, works on my Apple devices (see previous parenthetical) and has broad support for hardware acceleration. And while Robert also points out in the aforementioned post that it isn't royalty-free for commercial use, I don't watch a heck of a lot of paid video on the web, and when I do (as is the case for NFL games, for example), I doubt the royalties would have a measurable impact on what I pay.

For me to prefer WebM (again from the perspective of a purely self-interested web user who doesn't care about anything but whether he can watch poodles exercising on his cell phone), it would have to work on iOS, be as fast as H.264 and be supported at least as widely by publishers . The rub is that this scenario is never going to happen unless Google, Mozilla and company force the issue by refusing to support H.264. And it's hard to blame them considering how much of a bully Apple is being on the other side of the fence.

The other topic that deserves airing is the role that patents play in driving innovation. I'm as frustrated as the next guy by the proliferation of spurious and obvious patents, particularly in the software realm, that seem to do more to stifle progress than motivate inventors. At the same time, patents still have a legitimate purpose of which H.264 is arguably a fine exemplar. It's probably true (though unprovable) that video codecs would be less advanced today without the promise of potential profits for those who create them. On the other hand, MPEG LA (the body that licenses H.264-related patents) would probably not have extended the deadline for free licensing (first through 2015 and then indefinitely) without the threat of someone doing exactly what Google has just done.

It would be too cynical to see Google's move simply as a shot across the bow of arch-enemy Apple. But it's too naive to see it as an altruistic gesture to promote the cause of openness on the web. It is likely to make life harder, not easier, for both end users and publishers, while also maintaining pressure on MPEG LA and its ilk to offer reasonable licensing terms that include royalty-free non-commercial use. Such is the complex dance of intertwining interests and competitive pressures that make up the world of web standards. If past experience is any guide, a new codec will emerge that makes the current lot obsolete long before this drama has finished playing out in the market.