Google answers critics on HTML5 Web video move

While it may not quiet those who hate its decision to drop H.264 support from the HTML5 video tag in Chrome, Google has laid out its thinking in greater detail.

Tom Krazit Former Staff writer, CNET News
Tom Krazit writes about the ever-expanding world of Google, as the most prominent company on the Internet defends its search juggernaut while expanding into nearly anything it thinks possible. He has previously written about Apple, the traditional PC industry, and chip companies. E-mail Tom.
Tom Krazit
3 min read

Google responded to critics of its decision to drop support for a popular HTML5 video codec by declaring that a royalty-supported standard for Web video will hold the Web hostage.

Much has been made this week of Google's decision to end support for the widely used H.264 video codec as it implements a key portion of the collection of technologies known as HTML5 in its Chrome browser. Mike Jazayeri, a product manager for Google, wrote a blog post today responding to some of the more common critiques of its plan to support only the WebM video codec standard within the <video> tag.

"Our choice was to make a decision today and invest in open technology to move the platform forward, or to accept the status quo of a fragmented platform where the pace of innovation may be clouded by the interests of those collecting royalties," Jazayeri wrote. "Seen in this light, we are choosing to bet on the open web and are confident this decision will spur innovation that benefits users and the industry."

Google's decision to support WebM only splits the browser community roughly in two. Apple and Microsoft support the H.264 codec as the technology to be used in the <video> tag, while Mozilla, Opera, and now Google have gotten in line behind WebM, which Google turned into an open-source project after acquiring the VP8 technology at the heart of WebM from On2 Technologies last year.

The main issue is that the five organizations involved in the HTML5 standards-setting process were simply not going to agree on a standard codec for the <video> tag, Jazayeri wrote. Apple and Microsoft are members of the patent pool that licenses the H.264 code, known as MPEG-LA. And Mozilla and Opera are smaller organizations opposed to paying the licensing fees for that technology.

"To companies like Google, the license fees may not be material, but to the next great video startup and those in emerging markets these fees stifle innovation," Jazayeri wrote in the post. "We believe the web will suffer if there isn't a truly open, rapidly evolving, community developed alternative and have made significant investments to ensure there is one."

Google's decision has caused consternation among video producers worried about having to support two different video standards, since they have no choice but to support devices that play H.264 video--nearly all modern devices--for years to come. Hardware decoders for the H.264 codec, which are all but essential for mobile devices with constrained battery life, are widespread while hardware decoders for WebM are just now emerging.

Critics have also pointed out that the decision might actually cause video sites to rely on plug-ins to display video when the whole point of the <video> tag was to give Web publishers a way to move beyond the limiting nature of plug-ins.

Google, with a huge repository of video in YouTube, understands the concerns about maintaining two different video standards, Jazayeri wrote. However, they were probably going to have to do so anyway if they wanted to serve video to Firefox users, who constitute roughly 22 percent of the market, he wrote. (Opera's market share is around 2 percent.)

Jazayeri did not directly address the issue of Google's support for WebM ensuring Flash would live for years, other than to say that Chrome would continue to support that plug-in.

The post is likely to do nothing to mollify those who think Google is making a huge mistake, but it does lay out the company's thinking in a much more detailed way than its original post provided.

"Bottom line, we are at an impasse in the evolution of HTML video," Jazayeri wrote. "This is why we're joining others in the community to invest in WebM and encouraging every browser vendor to adopt it for the emerging HTML video platform (the WebM Project team will soon release plugins that enable WebM support in Safari and IE9)."

It's fair to say this debate is far from over.