Google and Apple are (in a roundabout way) at it again, as both make attempts to bring their own video encoding technologies to the forefront of internet-delivered video. The most recent shot was fired from the Google Chrome camp, when they claimed that future versions of the Chrome browser would not support H.264 (Apple’s favorite), instead boosting support for the WebM and Theora codecs. WebM is Google’s favored “open source” video codec, in contrast to H.264, which is licensed by the MPEG LA patent consortium, who hold Apple as a member.
Google’s announcement comes as another turn in the long-drawn battle for online video supremacy. Back in April of 2010, Steve Jobs wrote a long manifesto on why Apple products don’t and won’t support Adobe’s Flash codec, and would be promoting H.264 as the web-video standard for mobile and desktop viewing. Many were outraged at the time, and couldn’t conceive of an internet video experience without Flash. And yet by May of last year, H.264 was already the format of 66% of web videos. Many more, I’m sure, didn’t notice at all when their beloved funny cats YouTube videos were in a different format than before.
Currently, MPEG LA is offering H.264 as “royalty-free”, primarily due to pressure from the press when they got wind of the free open source codecs. However, “royalty-free” does not mean free for all: H.264 is only free for those who would use it for Internet-delivered non-commercial uses. All other uses of H.264 run the risk of being asked for not-insignificant amounts of money from MPEG LA. Google’s announcement implies that it would be better for everyone if they switched over to WebM – less risk for encoders, better for the open-source community, potentially better for end-users – but the real question remains to be answered: How is it better for Google?
And so, Adobe may indeed be the Helen of Troy in this battle between titans. Because, as it turns out, Adobe Flash supports WebM technologies, and is in fact a WebM partner. Was it a heartfelt plea from Adobe that got Google to lay the smackdown on Apple favorite H.264? Or are they really in it to uphold the principles of open source? As usual, we, the little guys, will have to wait for the next press release to find out.
Thanks to Peter Csathy for his blog post on the background of the encoding business.