Google's decision to take sides in the HTML5 video codec debate, choosing its own WebM format, obviously, has stirred up quite a bit of controversy. Many are criticising this as a step backward for HTML5 adoption and a hypocritical move from Google since, while preaching HTML5 and open standards, it's basically propping up Flash by making HTML5 less appealing to websites.
Google has now provided more details on why it made the decision and what it means for the web. The gist of it is that HTML5, while promising, is still some years away from being widely adopted for online video.
Meanwhile, Flash is already widely supported in all browsers and most if not all online video websites.
As such, Google's move to restrict the support in Chrome to just WebM and ditch the proprietary H.264 codec wouldn't have much of a real world impact at this point. The fact that Mozilla and Opera were not going to support H.264 anyway means that little has changed for the average user.
"It is clear that there will not be agreement to specify H.264 as the baseline codec in the HTML video standard due to its licensing requirements," Mike Jazayeri, product manager at Google, wrote
For background, at this point there is no enforced requirement for video codec use in the proposed HTML5 standard. Browser makers could not reach an agreement so they are left to do as they please with websites having to choose which browser to support, or have the same video encoded at least twice in different formats.
"Furthermore, we genuinely believe that core web technologies need to be open and community developed to enable the same great innovation that has brought the web to where it is today," Jazayeri added.
"To use and distribute H.264, browser and OS vendors, hardware manufacturers, and publishers who charge for content must pay significant royalties—with no guarantee the fees won’t increase in the future," he explained.
Royalties are not an issue for Google and would not be a problem even for Mozilla, an open-source outift. But they can add up and would be prohibitively expensive for many startups and small companies. For open-source software, there is also the issue of licensing.
Google also believes that the patent burden that weigh on H.264, which is administrated by a group of companies that all have patents relating to the video format, including Microsoft and Apple, the main supporters of the codec, is a big issue.
This is why Google, along with Mozilla and Opera, are asking for WebM to be the one included in the HTML5 standard draft, making it mandatory, instead of simply supporting H.264, the more popular and still technically superior choice.
Google also touched on the issue of Flash. The company says that the plugin is simply too popular not to support it. However, the hope is that HTML5 will evolve to a point where it will replace it, making the whole thing moot.
Finally, Google also made an interesting announcement: the WebM Project will release plugins for both Safari and Internet Explorer to enable users to view WebM videos in the two browsers.
The plugins will only serve to enable the native HTML5 capabilities of the browsers to use WebM codecs installed by the users. The videos would still be played by the standard HTML5 player and the plugins are not a replacement.