Google’s H.264 question

In The Practical vs. Idealistic Scenarios for the Near-Term Future of Online Video, Gruber painstakingly outlines the permutations of outcomes Google’s decision to drop H.264 from the Chrome desktop browser may engender.

There have been myopic rebuttals from the Flash amen corner, as expected. But no need here to go into why Google’s done it, as I’ve been chronicling Google’s growing hypocrisy as a necessary result of its chosen business model for many months now.

I’d like to add one question to Gruber’s list and it’s a simple one. Given that

  • Apple will have well over 200 million iOS devices and 175 million iTunes account holders with credit cards by 2012
  • Apple’s iTunes ecosystem is likely the most profitable commercial online demographics ever aggregated, with sustained, proven buying habits and the least purchasing friction
  • Apple will not add WebM hardware support to iOS devices (surely, not without some major Google payoff)

Google’s board should ask the current management this very simple question:

Can Google afford to write off the iOS ecosystem?

If the answer is negative, and there are no other Google shoes to drop, then this was a monumentally shortsighted move.

39 thoughts on “Google’s H.264 question

  1. This is not as big a deal as people make it out to be for Google. Google users should be used to having Google yank their chains for random reasons by now (hello Wave?). Changing standards, software, and rules on a whim (beta urges) is normal for Google, adhering to the “throw everything on the wall and see what sticks” general approach, just like how Google does not care it has two mobile platforms (Android and Chrome) at the moment.

    What is consistent from Google is its compulsion to *OWN* every detail of its domain – from custom servers, productivity suite, data storage, to frameworks that they rather plagiarize than cooperate in (Android SDK, App Engine). It wants to be bigger than Microsoft, and also own every piece of the action like Apple. That is its blueprint. As long as the numbers still bear profit, such move is just standard operation strategized long ago.

    • One of the irksome things about this is that removing a feature that has significant and growing use by web sites goes directly AGAINST their normal “throw everything on the wall and see what sticks” pattern.

      H.264 is sticking to the wall: it’s what’s required for mobile browsers; it has mature and widely deployed support tools; the majority of online videos are now actually H.264, but played using Flash rather than the video tag. (Which is how extensions like http://www.verticalforest.com/youtube5-extension/ are able to do their magic.)

      Meanwhile, it’s been 8 months since WebM launched, and … what content provider (other than YouTube, of course) has shown any interest in using it? At all? On the WebM Supporters page, under “Video Platforms and Publishers”, EVERY single entry is a platform developer, except YouTube. There are no other publishers showing a real interest. Outside the realm of Free Software advocacy, there does not seem to be any market need for WebM.

      Chrome was previously the *only* browser to natively support both H.264 and WebM (and also Ogg Theora), and that seemed… fitting. The “support everything and let web designers choose” philosophy was very much in line with what people had grown to expect from Google.

      This is a harsh about-face.

    • I agree. I think in this case the need to own the control of the underlying technology out-vote the typical “openness” procedure. This is a move right out of Microsoft’s playbook. Think about how dominant Java would have become if Google simply backed a truly open Java standard on mobile. It would be like PHP on the Web. Now Google will get in a fight with Oracle.

  2. My fear is that there are other, even more shocking “skulduggers” waiting in the wings to stick the treacherous knife in further yet… maybe even members of the mighty MPEG-LA consortium itself.

    One thing is for sure, no one company has a lock on the hypocrisy stakes, especially when ultra-competitiveness and profit-envy are brought into the equation. Cost has long been dismissed as the reasons behind this move, and “openness” has been thoroughly dissected and defined here and elsewhere to give the lie to that hackneyed chestnut.

    When failure comes in through the door, love flies out of the window…

  3. So Chrome browser won’t have H.264 but
    Chrome OS will?
    If Chrome OS doesn’t then hardware manufacture
    will add it, otherwise its user won’t be able watch
    their own home movies without converting to another codec.

    Real question is Google going to pay porn producers to
    use WebM. That will be the success and failure test.

    How can google deprive its user of full web experience.
    After all that is what it criticized Apple for regarding Flash, etc.

  4. I think that Google dropping support for the H.264 format makes perfect sense, for one very important reason. MPEG LA charges licensing fees to decode H.264. For companies such as Google, Mozilla, and Opera, that can be a major burden since they don’t charge for their browsers. Apple and Microsoft are both patent holders, so they make money from H.264. Google embracing an “Open” format (whether they make it or not) is in their best interests, and the best interests of content owners and other software makers. I’m not sure that WebM is ready to replace H.264, but we could find out very soon.

    • Mike,

      As far as I am aware, H.264 only remains free at the point of delivery — when you’re viewing a video. The initial encoding, server technology, and browser decoding software incur a royalty payment to MPEG LA. Even if a vendor pays for the decoder, H.264 could not be implemented directly within an open source product because the source must be freely available to anyone. Licensing issues arise for Mozilla Firefox, Google Chromium and Linux distributions.

    • Mike,

      What I an trying to say is that Google dropping H.264 is more a financial decision, rather than anything to do with being “open”. If they don’t want to pay the fees for Chrome then say that, don’t use the “open” bullshit.

      Secondly, during the MS illegal monopoly years, many balked at the idea that MS (or any company) control a particular standard which has a wide impact on the industry. Regardless of the fact that WebM is an “open” standard, it is still owned by ONE company.

    • Andrew

      Just to clarify one point WebM is not an open standard. WebM is open source software, but Google provided the software without ever going to a standards organization and working through the process of agreement by committee.

    • H.264 can, and is, implemented directly within SEVERAL open source products. It’s an open standard. You can freely go and look it up yourself, and given the time and skill, make your own decoder.

      x264, an open source project, is widely considered to be the best H.264 encoder, in terms of quality-per-bit.

      FFmpeg’s libavcodec includes native H.264 decoding; thus, in turn, anything that uses FFmpeg (VLC, MPlayer, etc, … Chrome) can include it. Whether or not they do is another question.

      The license fees apply to SELLING/DISTRIBUTING software that includes a decoder.

      This is a patent situation, and as with patents, you can freely design whatever you want while incorporating others’ patented technologies — the licensing only becomes a problem when you start to build and sell what you designed.

      Free, H.264-playing software like VLC falls into a grey area. Strictly speaking, they’re in the wrong for not paying MPEG-LA the $0.20-per-person license fee, but MPEG-LA has traditionally turned a blind eye to that, as they have nothing to gain, and a lot to lose, by trying to stop/sue such volunteer projects.

    • “is more a financial decision”

      Probably.

      “… then say that, don’t use the …”

      That’s the way companies work. Google, Microsoft, Apple, whoever. They never come out and say, “We’re making this change because we want to make more money.” That might be the reason, but they’re going to say “We want to be more open”, or “We want a more cohesive user experience”, or “We want world peace.”

      “Regardless of the fact that WebM is an “open” standard, it is still owned by ONE company.”

      Well, kinda, but not really. WebM has been released under a BSD License which is compatible with the GPL. Since that’s already been done, it’s hard to say that the standard is still “owned” by one company.

    • I suppose it depends on how you define “major burden”. The amount Google has to pay each year to MPEG-LA (capped at $6.5 million) pales in comparison to the cost of buying WebM (about $100 million+) which pales in comparison to the $30 some odd billion Google makes each year.

      As for MPEG-LA; Apple and Microsoft and another 30 or so big name companies like Panasonic, Sony, LG, Samsung, Dolby, etc and anon all kicked in patents to form a standards body to try to simplify consumer electronics interoperability and called it MPEG-LA and hired independent experts to develop H.264 according to 2 standards authorities. We’re talking about most of the consumer electronic firms you find in every electronic store. They then split the revenues. Apple btw contributed the least (1 patent) to this patent pool while Samsung put in 57 and LG 198. It’s a bit hard to swallow that H.264 is somehow an “Apple driven technology” from which Google has to free the world so there won’t be any evil.

    • Mike
      What are your thought on the patent liability since google provides no indemnity for use of WebM, what protection do the content owners have against a lawsuit from MPEG LA. Folks who have looked at the code have noted significant similarities to the point where some functional blocks are basically a copy from H.264 to WebM.

    • MPEG LA has stated they will never charge the end user, only the web sites delivering the content. since MPEG LA is basically a company to pool patents from most of the big players on video, I doubt you can build a codec today that does not infringe on them. Note that Google owns Youtube, one of the biggest user of video on the web. They would love to not pay the fees.

  5. 1) So Google drops support of H.264 published jointly by international standards bodies and favouring their own company alternative. Seems like Google got hold of Microsoft’s old playbook and is running it to the letter.

    That they are screwing pre-Gingerbread Android users is just a bonus (like Microsoft dropping support for PlaysForSure-until-we-release-the-Zune). Instead of “Don’t be evil” maybe they should change their motto to “Don’t be open”.

    2) If Google just came out and stated that is for a business reason, infrastructure costs and we decided to cut back support to a few formats, they might have got a better reception. And if they wanted to standardise on one format: Flash+ H.264 would give them widest coverage (MS releasing a H.264 plugin for Firefox covers Firefox principled stance in supporting open source).

    3) As other commenters mentioned Google is probably doing this to prop up their advertising (or adware if you prefer) business as HTML5 lacks the additional targeting that Flash offers.

    The additional issue I foresee that if their primary product, web-seach, is increasingly broken (cf: Marco Arment’s Google’s decreasingly useful, spam-filled web search http://www.marco.org/2617546197) then people may begin to look to alternatives like Bing. Another alternative would be amalgamate Yahoo’s Directory and a social bookmarking site like Delicious — based on human recommendations rather than software web crawlers.

  6. I dont think Google drops H264 from Youtube. But eventually they will offer better resolutions only with WebM.

    Apple on their part must find a way to point the finger clearly at Google for the inconvenience this will cause Apple-users. Then Apple will be very happy to sell everyone upgraded iDevices with WebM-support.

    In the end someone will fill the void now left by Google (especially if they start playing around with Youtube) just like Android filled the void left by Apples exclusive with AT&T and Microsofts withdrawal from the smartphone market.

    • Google has to be a bit careful here IMO because Facebook is the elephant in the room and isn’t being talked about for some reason. Robust Facebook video streaming and some kind of tie in with Apple and Microsoft using H.264 could go a long way towards hurting YouTube if YT drops H.264.

    • No, Apple will not be happy to sell upgraded devices with WebM support, any more than they put Windows Media in iPod. Above all else, Apple likes to control its own destiny, which means either Apple technology like OS X or Cocoa, or open standard vendor neutral technologies like H.264 or HTML. WebM is worse than FlashPlayer, which at least plays standard H.264 content. Besides, there are no hardware WebM players. The technology does not exist. WebM is at best a PC technology, for hobbyists only. Hollywood does not know it exists. Consumer Electronics does not know it exists. It’s HD-DVD 2, this time from Google, not Microsoft. All it will achieve is consumer confusion. Just as iTunes won the next-generation optical disc battle, Google hopes YouTube will win the online video codec battle. WebM itself will not succeed as a video codec and is not even meant to.

  7. That’s what I’m asking. The last people that should be happy are existing Android (i.e. pre-Gingerbread) users. Google has no qualms about screwing its existing user base in order to further its “open” spiel.

  8. Here is what I am concerned about: Google pulls H.264 from YouTube, supporting only WebM + html5 or WebM + flash. Where does this leave Apple? YouTube is getting to the point where it is almost a non-negotiable feature that every smartphone must have. Not having it would be akin to not having Facebook. There would be droves of young people who would never even consider an iPhone without it. iOS is in an extremely strong position, but it would be a serious blow to the platform to not have YouTube.

    My guess is that this is Google’s end game with all this. They looked at their assets, what they had that could really hurt the iOS platform, and saw that YouTube was far and away their biggest weapon. In their cynicism they said, yes it will prop up Flash and go against our supposed core principles, but hurting iOS is more important, and we can do it in the name of ‘openness’.

    If this happens, my guess is that Apple will ultimately capitulate and add support for WebM so that YouTube videos will play. I don’t think Apple cares about WebM strategically to nearly the same degree that they care about Flash, as it’s not a meta-platform like Flash is.

    • Yes, but this assumes, as my question alludes to, that there’s no significant cost to Google in writing off iOS. There is. And we may get to see what it is.

    • Google is an advertising company. They were practically founded on the notion that eyeballs are more valuable than hard drive space.

      Google needs the eyeballs of iOS users much more than Apple needs YouTube support in the iPhone.

      If Google dropped H.264 from YouTube, they’d break it for more than just iOS devices, and they would (quite rightly) face the backlash over it, not Apple. The public would see this not as “Apple refuses to allow WebM”, but rather “YouTube used to work and now Google broke it”.

      And there are many other video sharing sites aching for the chance to steal people from YouTube. The overnight success of Instamatic is evidence of how iOS users sharing things only with each other is enough to drive a social network. Apple would win this game of chicken.

    • “… iOS users sharing things only with each other is enough to drive a social network.”
      Exactly. For Google, the writing’s on the wall. They’ve got to move fast, for the market and Apple are moving furiously toward a symbiotic relationship away from proprietary entry points control à la “Google search”, “You Tube”, “Flash” etc.

      The crux is whether Google can afford not to put serious pressure on iOS while they still have remnants of serious leverage over the flow and networking dynamics of ad supported, analytics underwritten Internet. 

      As I mentioned in a previous comment, Apple strategy is grounded into unmediated and relatively spontaneous networking, micro or cell networking, through Facetime/Airplay and iAd non-commoditized sponsoring of App Store personal life management and enhancement.

      Apple’s model is a running and soon to become irreversible threat to Google-branded scrambled and highly vulnerable pathways to processed information on the Net. I reckon Google, Adobe and possibly others have no choice but to network proprietarily their way out of Apple unchaining and user empowering threat…, while they still can. 

      It’s all between the end users and the controlling and “smoke screen” geeks and their frequent allies, the public regulators. But I believe Apple’s “user’s interest” concept will win out in the end. 

    • Barring some really nasty screw-the-users type tricks, Apple will inevitably win this one. They make hardware, so their money comes direct from the users. It’s in their interest to look out for the users, unlike Google or Facebook, & because it’s a tangible good they sell they don’t have to put unreasonable burdens on the users like Microsoft & Adobe do. Were Apple just pushing into the game it might turn out differently, but they’ve got too much momentum at the moment.

    • Google pulls h.264 support from YouTube?
      How about Apple pulls Google search off iDevices in the next OS update or simply makes Yahoo the default search engine instead of Google.

      I think you already know who’s got more to lose in that scenario.

    • iOS is not the only platform without WebM. All Consumer Electronics devices (mobiles, music players, set-tops, consumer PC’s) have hardware video players with ISO MPEG-4 H.264 in them. They don’t have the infrastructure for arbitrary codecs. Even on PC’s, an Atom chip, for example, can only play HD in H.264.

      H.264 is not Apple’s video format, it’s the Consumer Electronics video format. It’s the successor to DVD.

      If YouTube drops H.264, it goes dark for way more users than just Apple users. It would stop working in FlashPlayer also.

      However, as far as YouTube, I don’t think the play is to drop H.264. YouTube is unique in that it has a multiple-codec platform … they can deal with multiple codecs on a large scale. They abstract that away for publishers and users. Other video publishers cannot deal with multiple codecs. If all I have to do to publish video is upload an H.264 from my camera or video editor to a Web server and put a video tag in my HTML, then why do I need YouTube? However, if I also have to program a FlashPlayer or offer alternate nonstandard formats, now I’m inclined to upload to YouTube and let YouTube deal with making the video universal.

      In other words, both YouTube and H.264 are competing universal video solutions. H.264 is universal by virtue of being an open, vendor neutral ISO standard that is widely-deployed, and YouTube is universal by pure brute force, it essentially translates all codecs into “YouTube”.

      So even though Google seems to be promoting their quasi-open proprietary WebM codec by sabotaging H.264, they are really promoting their totally closed proprietary YouTube codec.

  9. They may, but they don’t necessarily have to. Besides, Chrome can work with webm, leaving for a while android with existing support, i.e. the same crappy user experience.

    They trade user experience to writing off iOS.

  10. If you conclude, as I do, that the answer is an obvious “No”, then it’s clear that this cannot be the first step of a greater organizational shift to WebM away from H.264. YouTube will be hosting H.264 videos for a long time to come.

    Which means this move has to be a strategic one meant to affect the browser market, and the shifting usage rates of HTML5 vs Flash.

    I agree that the likeliest effect of this is to prolong Flash’s use as the primary tool for web videos. I think Google is aware of that, and that is precisely why they did this.

    How does prolonging Flash serve Google’s interests?

    1) It hurts Apple.

    2) Flash offers more detailed user tracking. Namely, Flash cookies, that persistently track anyone who simply loads a page with an embedded YouTube video. These are notoriously hard to manage and erase. (ref: http://news.cnet.com/8301-13739_3-10186408-46.html )

    3) Flash allows for more advertising: Flash allows video-overlay advertisements, while cross-browser support for such in HTML5 is still lacking. And that doesn’t even get into Flash advertising in general.

    • One other thought. Adobe and Microsoft were recently dating and holding hands at the highest level so Google’s love thrust towards Adobe conveniently has a Microsoft play as well.

    • Let’s not forget RIM’s new love affair with Adobe for their Playbook.

      I suspect it’s something of a “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” situation.

      “Apple refuses to use Flash; therefore, Flash is an advantage we can have over them.”

    • It’s like a highschool romance sitcom. Adobe is on the outs with Apple but can’t survive without the mac. Apple is p••sed off at Adobe for its years old flirtation with Microsoft at Apple’s expense and the resulting crap performance of Flash but replacing Photoshop on Mac would take some serious engineering efforts so they don’t cut their ties completely although Adobe remembers well how Apple took the video market from them when they bought video editing software from Macromedia and turned it into final cut pro. Adobe subsequently bought Macromedia and dismantled it. Google does what it can to dis it’s ex-crush-love object Apple but still needs to get along with Apple enough to sell ads to its high income search audience on MacOS and iOS so they play the frenimies game. Apple would love to replace Google maps or search or adWords or even YouTube etc but users kind of expect them to be there and even with iADs limited success there are no signs of Apple Maps or online documents. None the less Apple has been playing footsie with Facebook just to remind Google that they (Apple) have options. Microsoft hates Google and has a history of hating Apple which is pretty well reciprocated. And lets not forget that Google’s first victim and target was Microsoft who of course started Bing to try to defeat Google at its own game and didn’t. Mud on face. So Microsoft cozy up to Facebook and Adobe to remind Google that Google can’t go that route. So Google drops the H.264 bombshell on both Microsoft and Apple and does some friendly fire on Android and cozies with Adobe in a powerplay.

  11. The question no one seems to be asking is: what about existing Android users? The large majority of Android devices are running Froyo or even earlier; WebM support is only available for Gingerbread. So Android users would have to use Flash Player for Android in order to play H.264 content, with its problematic battery life/security issues.

    • Indeed – but what about Google’s crack support team (fandroid’s) that have invested their hard earned cash already? Some are already a bit fed up with the wonders of owning the “smartphone of the week”, others are getting definitely pissed that certain carriers and manufacturers won’t upgrade certain phones (Samsung I am looking at you).

      Are Google really going to throw the baby out with the bathwater and get these loyal fans to buy yet more reiterations of the same device with more hardware just to please the great god Google?

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