Watching technology companies compete over the web is a lot like watching two male animals grunt and beat their chests to win mating rights for a female. At times it is amusing and it always ends with someone being disappointed. Google's recent announcement that they are ending support for H.264 in their Chrome browser is just the latest grunt.
Lately, much of the quibbling has been over the HTML5 video standard, or lack thereof, as is slowly becoming apparent. In one corner are Mozilla and Opera who both insist on an open video format, preferably Ogg Theora. In the other corner are Apple and Microsoft who laugh at the supposed inferiority of open video formats and claim only those that use the H.264 codec can carry the future of web video.
Google sits somewhere in the middle. For a time, their Chrome web browser was the only one to support both formats, Theora and H.264. But Google had bigger plans and made those plans clear when they acquired the video codec company On2 Technologies. Shortly after Google released their own web-tailored video format called WebM (according to specialists* WebM is a combination of the VP8 codec and the Ogg Vorbis audio codec, wrapped in a Matroska container).
Google gradually added WebM videos to YouTube where prior the only alternative to Flash was H.264. Shortly after its release, Mozilla, Opera, and even Adobe (the makers of Flash) voiced support for Google's plans, leaving Apple and Microsoft on the defensive.
It would seem, as one blogger wrote, that Google is siding with the "little guy", while the big corporations, Microsoft, Apple, and others, are happy supporting H.264, which is laced with patents and the possibility of requiring video software companies or even producers to pay royalties in the future. Perhaps most vocal of all was Microsoft's response saying Google's removal of H.264 from Chrome is equivalent to a country announcing it would no longer allow English to be spoken.
According to those in Microsoft's camp, H.264 is already widely supported on the web and is, therefore, already the de facto standard. Since "everyone" is using it, Google's approach is a step backwards. Another blogger even went as far as saying that Google essentially killed HTML5, and therefore, Flash would continue its reign.
Regardless of where you stand on the issue, it is clear that Google has drawn a line in the sand. They did not fire the first shot, but they have certainly fired a big one with this announcement. With YouTube, Google can essentially remake web video however it sees fit. It may not be a popular decision, but a decision had to be made. Someone was bound to be disappointed.
The HTML5 video standard will include Ogg Theora and WebM. Apple and Microsoft will either have to start supporting it or risk alienating their Safari and Internet Explorer users from YouTube. That would not cause those users to erupt in protest. They would simply download Chrome or Firefox and go on about their business.
What This Means For You " By Search Engine People:
- Enable your buzz word alert: watch out for pitches touting "WebM ready", "next generation Google video support", or "Google Video support"
- Don't pay extra for video transcoding: sites like YouTube will automatically do whatever is needed to your upload
- Standards: standards and best practices on the web grow; they're not established. The proof is in the pudding " and the pudding is your ROI. As-is the video format debate is for all practical purposes an academic one.
Tavis J. Hampton is a librarian and writer with a decade of experience in information technology, web hosting, and Linux system administration. His freelance services include writing, editing, tech training, and information architecture. * With thanks to Manchester server hosting company 34SP.com for their feedback on web video formats.