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Google may be one of the world's most respected tech companies, but it could learn a thing or two from Apple. One lesson: surprises are supposed to be good.

Yesterday, Google surprised the world with an announcement that it is dropping support for the popular H.264 video codec. Not surprisingly, this sparked an outcry from many publishers and users who now know: the codec wars are on.

Google, of course, thinks it's doing the web a favor. On the Chomium Blog, Google product manager Mike Jazayeri explained:

...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.

What to make of this?

Last year, MPEG LA, the licensing group that controls H.264, did lift some of the licensing restrictions that were the source of some of the concerns over H.264. The means Google's desire to promote "open innovation" is probably little more a convenient red herring. The reality is that H.264 is widely used, and it is not going away.

Instead of having native support for the playback of H.264, Chrome users will now have to obtain and install their own codecs and plugins. John Gruber at Daring Fireball correctly notes that Google's move "is just going to push publishers toward forcing Chrome users to use Flash for video playback — and that the video that gets sent to Flash Player will be encoded as H.264." This, of course, means that it will also have an impact on publishers, many of whom have been longing for the day they could get away from encoding video for Flash.

While some of the most ardent 'open source' supporters may cheer Google's move on the grounds that Google is promoting truly open codecs, some believe Google's move could actually harm HTML5's development. Whether it does or not, Google's move to ditch H.264 support in Chrome is the perfect example of Google's interests in one market conflicting with its interests in another.

Google may prefer other codecs to H.264, but H.264 is widely considered to be superior to WebM and Theora, and ditching support for H.264 in Chrome at this stage of the game is generally just harmful to the browser's users.

Google therefore shouldn't be surprised if long-term, this puts a dent in Chrome's growth.

Patricio Robles

Published 12 January, 2011 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

2380 more posts from this author

Comments (3)

Fran Jeanes

Fran Jeanes, Internet Business Consultant at i-contact web design

Could Google be ready to unveil their own video format? Maybe the future is a G.666 format! ;)

over 5 years ago

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Tom Atkinson

This sounds really bad... but actually Ogg Theora probably deserves it's time to shine, after all the hard work put into it by contributors. Let's not forget that video has always been tricky to encode for web, and if Theora makes it big will be a win for most everyone except MPEG-LA. Although it's a pity since I had just settled on H.264 for my personal favourite standard codec, and yeah it does look nice.

over 5 years ago

Terry Chisholm

Terry Chisholm, Manager of Digital Services at Pulse Group

So now google is creating new capability issues with it's browser which it hopes will grow to dominate the market. Sounds like some of the stuff Microsoft used to do back in the day. Seems like google's "do no evil" mantra is getting clouded by corporate bollocks... They really seem to be losing their way a bit.

over 5 years ago

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