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.