In a surprise announcement on the Chromium Blog today, Google announced that they would be phasing out H.264 support from the Google Chrome web browser, in favor of the open sourced WebM standard. The announcement further muddies the waters of HTML5 video support.
To that end, 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.
What is unclear is how Google can on one hand say that their goal is to enable open innovation, and yet still justify bundling the proprietary Adobe Flash plugin with Chrome.
The biggest supporter of H.264 in HTML5 video comes from Apple, which uses it in Safari, specifically on the iPhone, iPad and other iOS platform devices. Because Steve Jobs doesn’t like to run Flash unless he’s had a few drinks first, and even then only with protection, there is no Flash support on any iOS device. If WebM were to take off, Apple would need to act to incorporate support or leave millions of iOS users unable to load most web video sites.
However, the chances of a clear winner emerging from all of this is unlikely.
Prior to this announcement, Chrome had the unique distinction of being the only major browser to support both technologies. Firefox has never supported H.264 and will not in the next version, but Internet Explorer 9 which will be released sometime in 2011, does. Currently the only other mainstream browser that supports WebM is Opera, but Firefox 4 will enable support for that technology after it is released. Safari provides no support for WebM, nor does any current or future version of Internet Explorer.
Factor in Ogg Theora, and you have a codec that is almost universally supported by Firefox, Chrome and Opera… just not Internet Explorer or Safari.
Confused? Yeah, us too.
The reasoning for all of this comes down to licensing, something most end users don’t care about. We’re generally just happy when technology works as advertised. But Google doesn’t want to pay anyone for anything they don’t have to, and supporting WebM means not paying as much money or being bound to a restrictive license agreement.
Chrome used to be the browser that would play any of the three major HTML 5 video formats. Going forward from today, it has voluntarily neutered itself.