Why Google Isn't Evil (Today, at Least)

The more powerful that Google becomes, and the more it needs to satisfy investors' desires for a good return on their money, the more it comes under pressure to move away from its famous “don't be evil” motto. So it's nice to be able...

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The more powerful that Google becomes, and the more it needs to satisfy investors' desires for a good return on their money, the more it comes under pressure to move away from its famous "don't be evil" motto. So it's nice to be able to report on a move that seems true to that original aspiration:

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.

A measure of the goodness is the response of Mike Shaver, Mozilla's VP of Engineering:

It's a great move, and one we at Mozilla are obviously glad to see. It's been a great first 8 months for WebM: multiple browser implementations, hardware support, an independent implementation from ffmpeg, performance improvements, support from lots of transcoding services, and content growth on the web. Organizations like Google, Mozilla, Opera and others who really believe in the importance of unencumbered video on the web are putting their products where our mouths are, and the web is going to be stronger and more awesome for it.

If open source projects like WebM and Mozilla – and the open Web – are the big winners here, the loser is clearly the H.264 codec that Google is no longer supporting in Chrome. Until now, H.264 has been the undisputed standard for video on the Web – and off it: it's widely used in many video consumer devices.

In fact, it's so widely used that Google's move might seem quixotic. Even though WebM and Theora codecs are freely available, while H.264 requires a licence (free for some but not all uses), surely most content developers and hardware manufacturers will remain locked in to H.264 just by virtue of its overwhelming market share?

Well, that might have been a persuasive argument a year, or even six months ago, but things are moving rapidly in this area. Chief among the developments are the rise of Firefox and – in particular – Google's own Chrome. As I noted last week, Firefox now holds a major chunk of the brower market, particularly in Europe, while Chrome is growing very rapidly there and elsewhere. Put their market share together and you have a very strong argument for Web sites to offer content using the WebM technology that both will be favouring.

Of course, there is still the consumer market, but that is likely to follow suit, albeit after some delay, once WebM's market share starts rising, and now that hardware implementations are starting to become available:

The WebM/VP8 hardware decoder implementation has already been licensed to over twenty partners and is proven in silicon. We expect the first commercial chips to integrate our VP8 decoder IP to be available in the first quarter of 2011.

Hardware implementations of the VP8 encoder also bring exciting possibilities for WebM in portable devices. Not only can hardware-accelerated devices play high-quality WebM content, but hardware encoding also enables high-resolution, real-time video communications apps on the same devices. For example, when VP8 video encoding is fully off-loaded to a hardware accelerator, you can run 720p or even 1080p video conferencing at full framerate on a portable device with minimal battery use.

Another major factor that is likely to help the rapid uptake of WebM is that Adobe will be supporting it with a future version of its Flash Player:

we are excited to include the VP8 video codec in Flash Player in an upcoming release, which will help provide users with seamless access to high quality video content on all of their Internet-connected devices. Today, VP8 was released as open source by Google as part of the WebM effort.

Companies distributing video online need the freedom of choice to deliver the right experience for their customers and their business. We have a legacy of embracing standards, such as H.264 and HTTP, in our video delivery stack and are excited to be building on this with the inclusion of VP8.

Today, approximately 75% of video online is viewed using Flash Player because it provides the reach and consistency that companies need as well as additional capabilities, such as content protection, measurement and monetization opportunities that are critical to driving their business on the web. By adding support for VP8 to Flash Player we will extend the ability to use these critical capabilities with this media format and provide content owners the freedom of choice in how they deliver video.

Adobe's support is critical, because it means that those using browsers other than Firefox or Chrome (there are still some, I believe) will be able to view WebM content through Flash even if their application doesn't support it directly.

But there's a deep irony here, because the rise of WebM is also likely to hasten the rise of HTML5, which supports it through the <video> tag, as Google mentioned in its press release. And of course, as HTML5 becomes more widespread, so the need for Adobe's Flash will diminish (although Flash is so, er, embedded in online culture it's hard to imagine it disappearing completely in the foreseeable future.)

So it seems to me that Google is doing something rather remarkable here. It has succeeded in creating an open source video codec that stands a real chance of displacing the proprietary one, to the point that even Adobe is supporting it – even though that move may result in the toppling of its own proprietary Flash format.

It's true that the short-term consequence of Google's latest move on the WebM front could be that more people use Flash, but that is just a necessary compromise. Had Google dropped Flash as well as H.264, as some people have suggested it ought to have done for the sake of consistency, Adobe might well have retaliated and dropped WebM from Flash (or at least reduced its efforts to make it work well). As it is, I think Google has plotted rather skilfully a course that avoids the main obstacles and allows it to get where it and the world of open Web standards want to be – no mean achievement.

It's also worth noting that Google began its press release by emphasising the benefits of openness:

The web's open and community-driven development model is a key factor in its rapid evolution and ubiquitous adoption. The WebM Project was launched last year to bring an open, world-class video codec to the web. Since the launch, we've seen first-hand the benefits of an open development model:

Rapid performance improvements in the video encoder and decoder thanks to contributions from dozens of developers across the community

Broad adoption by browser, tools, and hardware vendors

Independent (yet compatible) implementations that not only bring additional choice for users, publishers, and developers but also foster healthy competition and innovation

That is, it was framing the decision in the context of the benefits of open development methodologies, which furthermore are pretty much taken for granted here – there's no suggestion of controversy in this regard. That it can be offered as sufficient rationale in itself bears witness to how far open source – and openness – has come in recent years.

Google can claim some part of the credit for that through its fairly consistent support of open source and openness. To be sure that support was self-interested, and it hasn't hesitated from taking some decisions that go against total openness (Android, for example, is very much a compromise in this regard). But it is certainly the case that when Google is not being evil, it can be really quite good.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca.

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