The backlash over Google's HTML5 video bet

Some of it was absurd, but the outcry over Google's decision to end support for a popular video technology could test its balance between philosophy and pragmatism.

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
6 min read

Choosing strategies based on what you believe to be long-term benefits is generally a good idea when running a business, but if you manage to alienate the world in the process, the long term may become irrelevant.

It was hard to miss the response that accompanied Google's announcement earlier this week that it no longer planned to support the H.264 codec for the HTML5 video tag in its Chrome browser in order to focus on the WebM technology. Depending on what you read, Google is either evil, brilliant, hypocritical, cunning, principled, or confused in dropping support for H.264, a widely used technology for encoding and decoding video files so they are playable on PCs and mobile devices.

What's more possible is that Google is cutting off its nose to spite its face. Google's two-year plan for WebM supremacy rests on a complicated and shaky foundation of assumptions about how video producers, content creators, equipment makers, and patent lawyers will behave during that period.

Google declined to comment for this story, but people familiar with its thinking said the company is aware of the backlash yet believes that painful steps are sometimes needed to make progress on the Web. However, while many of the emotional responses to its announcement were absurdly over the top, plenty were pragmatic, producing another piece of evidence that the tech industry is getting a little tired of watching another episode of Google Knows Best.

Waiting for codec
First, a quick recap: The W3C standards body has been debating how to implement one of the holy grails of the HTML5 standards--a <video> tag designed to free the world of plug-ins--for several years at a snail's pace. Until recently, Google, Apple, and Microsoft supported the use of H.264 files in the implementations of the <video> tag they planned to support in their browsers.

But Google also supported a rival codec called WebM, which it released to the open-source community last year after acquiring the technology behind the codec from a company called On2 Technologies. The problem with H.264, in Google's mind, is that it is controlled by a consortium of companies called MPEG-LA that have agreed to pool patents involving the technology. Apple, Microsoft, Sony, and a long list of household names are members of the group, which receives licensing royalties from companies that want to use H.264 video in streaming content or playing content on devices.

On Tuesday, Google declared itself squarely in the WebM camp, saying "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." Two main lines of dissent exploded over the next few days: one, that Google has put philosophy over actual user experience; and two, that Google is two-faced for dropping H.264 because it's not "open" while embedding Flash in Chrome at present, in that all it really wants to do is force people onto its technology and make life hard for Apple.

Let's get the second argument out of the way first: calling Google a hypocrite for supporting Flash at the moment while preaching the WebM gospel is disingenuous. When you see the world as one big battle between two giants, every little development gets framed in that lens.

Google's blog post is talking about a moment in the future, at least a few years down the road when HTML5 ideally has replaced or at least sidelined technologies like Flash, which desktop browser companies really have no choice but to support in 2011 if their users want to watch video on the Web. Apple may have decided to stop shipping Macs with Flash preinstalled, but even it hasn't barred the technology from the Mac the way it has from the iOS device lineup despite CEO Steve Jobs' well-known thoughts on Flash.

As in many cases involving Google, "open" can be defined in many different ways depending on whether you like the company. A Google critic is likely to point out the supposed hypocrisy, while a Google supporter might argue that supporting both Flash and HTML5 technologies is more "open" when it comes to the interests of the user, who just wants to know if this here gizmo thing gets "Family Guy." (We'll save for another day the discussion about what Google's "don't be evil" pledge really means.)

Split decisions
But Google appears to be underestimating the opposition to its strategy from those who see it as bad business, not just the jeers from the Applelistas who have replaced Microsoft with Google as Public Enemy No. 1.

Video producers are clearly not thrilled with the move. Some of my colleagues at CNET TV are extremely disappointed that Google has chosen to make their lives much more difficult by forcing difficult choices.

At some point in the future, those folks will either have to encode our video in both H.264 and WebM into what amounts to a huge increase in their workload and costs, bet on one standard or another knowing they're going to cause problems for half the user base, or throw their hands up in the air and continue to use Flash video, which solves the interoperability problem but denies them the opportunity to be more creative with how video is placed on a Web page: the whole freaking point of the HTML5 video tag in the first place. And that doesn't even address what to do with 6 years of archived CNET video.

Those who produce CNET TV are not crazy about the prospect of having to support two different HTML5 video codecs at some point down the road.
Those who produce CNET TV are not crazy about the prospect of having to support two different HTML5 video codecs at some point down the road. Screenshot by Tom Krazit/CNET

Google thinks they'll choose WebM because it's open and royalty free. However, H.264 is a superior technology and companies are often willing to pay for things that they know will work and work well, said Wilson Tang, a producer for CNET TV and co-host of The 404 podcast. And besides, H.264 isn't going anywhere anytime soon: with widespread support from Web video content producers and millions of iPhones, iPads, and other H.264-oriented devices out in the wild, no media company can afford to toss those people overboard in support of Google's desire for a more open standard.

Truth be told, video producers were facing an uncomfortable decision anyway because of Mozilla's insistence that Firefox--with 22 percent of the market--support only WebM and Ogg Theora, and the sense that the W3C standards body would never settle on a standard codec. Still, it's an easier decision to make when 65 percent or so of the market supports one technology as opposed to a more even split, and Chrome adoption is growing while other browsers stay flat or decline.

What if camera makers were to include support for WebM video in their devices? That's one way Google thinks it could skip the extra work involved in transcoding H.264 video over to WebM and get more WebM videos out in the wild, and it's talking to device manufacturers about the technology.

But while that may work for consumers recording vacation videos on their personal cameras, professional video producers don't shoot video in either H.264 or WebM. They use "professional codecs" that allow video producers to do all kinds of post-production work that moms and dads uploading videos of Christmas morning simply don't require, Tang said.

That video then gets encoded into the H.264 delivery format for playback because mobile devices largely use H.264 hardware decoders; WebM hardware decoders are starting to emerge but are far from common. It's possible to decode video in software, but it's a killer for battery life on a mobile device.

The biggest potential landmine for Google when it comes to WebM is in the courtroom. It seems like only a matter of time before someone in the MPEG-LA group decides to test whether WebM's technology infringes on the patent pool behind the H.264 standard.

That means content producers who bet on WebM could find themselves in a position where they get caught up in patent uncertainty, and that's a place no one wants to be. Just ask anybody who bought BlackBerrys for their company five years ago and sweated out the final days of a landmark patent trial involving the gadget.

Shells in the omelet
No matter whether the backlash is emotional or reasoned, Google still has to deal with it if it wants to advance its philosophy that a royalty-free codec is the best solution for the future of Web video. Google has urged adoption of the HTML5 technologies for several years as part of its big bet that the Web will become one big software development platform.

However, if the end result of Google's move this week is that Chrome users switch to H.264-supported browsers, video producers fork the <video> tag, and Flash plug-ins stick around to ensure compatibility, company executives might not find much comfort in the purity of their open philosophy. It's true you have to break a few eggs to make an omelet, but you've also got to keep them in the pan.