Why Google was correct in Chrome dropping H.264

” This is crazy, why drop support for {propriety tech} that works and was pretty ubiquitous? ”

Now you can replace {propriety tech} with either H.264 or Flash. So why do we laud Apple dropping Flash but call Google’s recent action a blow to the open web.

It was always surprising to me that H.264 somehow became the standard for open video, even when the license terms have been mentioned so often. To the folks who are passionate about the open web, I say you aren’t trying hard enough. Open web is a hard goal to reach, h.264 seemed like an easy out, a solution to a problem we’d deal with later.

Ubiquitous support for a proprietary technology does not make it open, no matter how hard you may wish it to be.

So why did Google do it? One theory is to take a shot at Apple. But this announcement seems like a precursor to a very expensive exercise for Google itself: If Google is really serious about WebM, which this seems to indicate, they will have to transcode all their YouTube assets to the new format, and start building support for this into their other products, like Android. Seems too much like “Cutting off the nose to spite the face” kind of action.

The move makes perfect sense for Google. Google is not a company that thinks short term. If the current trends in online content continues, video will be a ridiculously huge part of the web. Its reasonable to imagine that advertising in that world will be pretty different. Current ad insertion strategies rely on pre / post roll ads and overlays controlled by the chrome of the video player. But the future could be very different, with things like dynamic ad insertion right into the media stream itself. For example, if the ad is embedded dynamically into the video stream, you could download the video and watch it offline, and still be guaranteed the ad was viewed, even if the video was “stolen”. Maybe such ads could even get more creative, something like embedding iAds into the video stream. [update] Also I imagine there will be a huge spurt in live video and video chat, now that more and more phones are coming out with front facing cameras. This makes relying on a licensed codec hard, especially on a scale like Google’s.

This is only one concept of the future of video advertising, but it underlies the fact that the video format could evolve to be very different from what we see today. It would be easier for Google to convince a group maintaining an open spec (that Google will definitely be a big part of) to add such capabilities than suggest it to a group that they don’t really influence and wait for them to decide to accept or reject.

Dropping H.264 support is a real blow for the short term but if enough investment is made in a truly open spec, I’d say it would be worth it.

The big question now is, will Microsoft accept WebM as well ?

One of the best comment on this was on reddit:

In the short term. This is a power play. The market is fragmented (e.g., no Flash on iPhones) and things will eventually coalesce, and Google doesn’t want them to coalesce into video tag/H264. They’re gambling that they can use their position (the most-used browser by techies, plus the most-used smartphone OS in the world) to force everyone to move off of H264 and onto open codecs.

Author: Arpit Mathur

Arpit Mathur is a Principal Engineer at Comcast Labs where he is currently working on a variety of topics including Machine Learning, Affective Computing, and Blockchain applications. Arpit has also worked extensively on Android and iOS applications, Virtual Reality apps as well as with web technologies like JavaScript, HTML and Ruby on Rails. He also spent a couple of years in the User Experience team as a Creative Technologist.

25 thoughts on “Why Google was correct in Chrome dropping H.264”

  1. Given “Ubiquitous support for a proprietary technology does not make it open, no matter how hard you may wish it to be.”, how can you ignore the fact that Google (continues) bundling Flash with their browser?

    Just sayin’


      1. And I think you’ve missed the point – Google’s announcement pointed to dropping h264 and moving to WebM as a move towards open. How can you claim to be open, but still embrace Flash – if you want to be truly open drop both h.264 and Flash.

        Also, I don’t think Apple’s embargo of Flash on iOS is about openness – instead it’s about performance and battery life.


    1. Flash is what we currently have, open html5 video tags is what we want.
      Flash is in too wide use at the moment to drop support from a desktop web browser, html5 video tag embeded h.264 video is fairly rare.
      Currently we’re heading in the direction of replacing Flash video with h.264 video, Google dropped support for h.264 to encourage content produces to instead make webm the standard codec for html5. I think this was a great move by Google.


  2. Apple dropped Flash because of reliability, security and performance problems. Unlike H.264.

    Google dropped H.264 because it does not match its definition of open (as far as I know it is more open than WebM, just not completely free).

    So why doesnt Google drop Flash which is not open.


    1. H.264 has roalty fees associated with it. Yes, free web video broadcasters are exempt. But, not people making the encoders and decoders (YouTube and browsers). Also, what if you have a revenue sharing thing going on with YouTube? Yeah, in such cases also MPEG LA can come calling.

      Flash is a plug-in, the <video> codec is native. Its like comparing apples to oranges.


    2. google dropped h.264 because 1) it can’t compete; and 2) it doesn’t own and control h.264; 3) google is rapidly becoming evil.


  3. Flash is also not open by any stretch of the imagination and often uses H.264 – this is about Google and Adobe trying to make a buck by any means necessary. If this were a move that was truly open for that purpose, then fine. But despite any point of view or fanship this is blatantly not open in any sense. Drop Flash too! Supplant with WebM only and support other open codecs and then you can wear that white hat. Until then, why deliver a sub par technology to help 1-2 companies under the guise of “open”?


  4. The big question now, and before, was: “What is BEST for consumers?”

    (And having smt that just works is unbeatable.)

    (Open Better. It’s just FREE. Who doesn’t love FREE viruses and trojans. And keyloggers? And spam? Who doesn’t love Email?)


    1. No company can say they are doing “whats best for the consumers”. Heck if that was what Apple wanted to do, why keep 30% of the rev on apps? For anyone, like Google, Facebook and Apple, its always “Whats most profitable”, which often translates to “make it good for the users so that they will use it more”. But the video tag right now is not moving customers one way or another, its strictly a geek thing right now. Google clearly sees some market potential in WebM and thats why its doing what it does.


      1. Apple keeps 30% of the rev because it has costs running an App Store w/ reviewers and stuff. Running a business requires actual cash…
        When companies want users to use more and more of their stuff, they automatically have to make the best stuff out there. There is no way to trick ppl to use smt that is crap.

        Finally, think that: Google allows only Java to write code on Android. That’s NOT choice for devs. That is closed. With .NET u can right an app for Windows/Phone/XBOX in any dev lang u want. That’s choice. And Openness. You can even write for .NET in Greek.

        (Supporting only one video codec is NOT choice. Even if the codec is ‘Open’. Choice is MUCH more important than Openness. Dropping support means evil has infiltrated into Google. Common sense plz.)


    1. I only mentioned one scenario, and I do imagine ads being a part of the internet for a long time. But even with micropayments, that could also be integrated into the video stream for example.


    2. Advertising is here to stay. It is now, and I will bet everything on the fact that it will be for the rest of your lifetime. Advertising is a way of life. It helps monetize all the stuff you do on the web that you spend tons of time on, but that you’d never pay for (like facebook).

      So yes, ads will be around in the “Future Web”. And a BIG portion of them will be video ads. Google is placing a very, very safe bet here.


  5. Once again, remember NONE of the big players has ever done anything to pioneer web video. The porn companies did it with flash. So all the johnny come latelys can have their food fights over format. This is just bait for the content companies. H264 is evil and so is every other proprietary codec. Flash is here forever as the tool that abstracts OVER these shenanigans


  6. Google says that they are doing this for the open web.

    Apple said that they were doing it because Flash was an unstable, bloated, resource hogging, battery draining, pig with too many security issues to count.

    What Apple said was true. What Google said sounds fishy.

    We criticize Google because it is disingenuous to drop support for one proprietary technology in the name of openness while gleefully supporting (and building in) another proprietary technology. As you say, no matter how widespread Flash usage is, that doesn’t make it open.


  7. Really who else is using WebM? This is one of the only levers they can pull to get the rest of the ecosystem around WebM up to parity, and it is unlikely to happen overnight. Despite the availability of a good free audio codec, has that stopped anyone from running their businesses on the others? Dejavu.


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