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Simon Phipps

With a focus on open source and digital rights, Simon is a director of the UK's Open Rights Group and president of the Open Source Initiative. He is also managing director of UK consulting firm Meshed Insights Ltd.

Google and H.264 - Far From Hypocritical

Not so fast calling Google hypocrites for not dropping Flash yet. This is a step on that journey.

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When Google announced yesterday that they were withdrawing from their Chrome browser embedded support in the HTML5 <video> tag for the H.264 encoding standard, there was immediate reaction. While some of it was either badly informed views by people who can't handle indirect causality or astroturf trolling by competitors, some of it was well-observed. For example, when they said:
"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."
they indicated that a motivation was to only use "completely open" technologies in Chrome. Yet they did not mention Adobe's proprietary Flash system, designed for embedded media programming yet definitely not "completely open" even by Adobe's special definitions of the word.

A large number of commentors on the Google blog said that the move was unjustified "because H.264 is now free". This is a complex topic that it's hard to explain concisely. But as I said last August, H.264 is not the kind of Free that matters. The MPEG-LA patent consortium taxes the H.264 standard so that the patent holders don't have to get their hands dirty or be identified as information highwaymen, and their fee waiver delivers some flexibility to some people.

But the rich media delivery chain that finally gets the video to those people is by no means free, and when anyone encourages use of H.264 they increase the pressure to pay up in order to play.

More than that, they also encourage a world that excludes open source. The requirement for any kind of special license in order to implement a technology is antithetical to implementing open source software, and regardless of the availability of projects like X264 the chilling effect is to be avoided.

But all these points are also true of Adobe Flash. So why not drop that too? Is it not hyprocritical to keep it? If you're an absolutist, probably yes. But there's a calculation going on here about steering the web into the level plains of truly open standards. H.264 support in the <video> tag is not the same as Flash support.

  • We're only talking about the HTML5 <video> tag here. Only web sites already supporting HTML5 for video delivery will be affected. All those comments saying they will stop being able to view video today are way off the mark.
  • HTML5 is an emerging standard and anyone dealing with it has to expect change constantly. So all those comments of the form "breaking the massive work I've already done" are off the mark.
  • There are workable alternatives to H.264 in the form of both WebM and Theora, both already supported on Firefox and Opera so that the extra burden on video suppliers is not great (unless they have been ignoring Firefox when delivering HTML5 video). So those comments about the extra burden on people serving video are short of the mark.

Flash and HTML5 are competitors. Google can only drop Flash support when HTML5 is supported sufficiently across the web to have critical mass. Arguably by finally joining Firefox and Opera in their opposition to H.264, this move will achieve it - another step on the path to being able to pragmatically afford to drop Flash.

So it's too early to call Google hypocrites. I think this bold move is another step towards an end to the Flash monopoly on rich media. Good one, Google.


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