Google Chrome To Drop H.264 – How Should Video Marketers Prepare?


Google Chrome Web browser drops H.264 codec

Google announced this week that they are dropping support for the H.264 video codec in their Chrome Web Browser, making the blogosphere buzz with debate and speculation as to what this means for the online video industry. Who will gain?  Who will lose? And more importantly, what should web video marketers do to prepare for this new development?

Google’s Announcement: H.264 No More

Google announced on its Chromium Blog that they were dropping support for the H.264 video codec, in favor of WebM (vp8), a codec it created. Google Chrome’s Product Manager Mike Jazayeri issued this statement on the move-and-drop:

“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.”

Google hasn’t declared their move as part of their noble goal of supporting open source technology. Rather, it appears to be for selfish reasons –to push its own video codec onto future WebM devices. The move is the latest in the ongoing battle between the giant companies (including Google, Adobe, Microsoft, Apple, et al) to determine what the future of the Web, and Web video, will look like; and what technologies and formats will power it.

How The Web Video Industry Will Be Impacted

Well, if you’re Google or work in the video encoding business, you may stand to reap big benefits because customers will face additional complexity. Everyone else  loses: video users, video publishers, video marketers, HTML5 and website developers, and even Chrome users (who won’t be able to access H.264 video in that browser any longer).

Larry Kless, President of OnlineVideoPublishing.com, reported this over at ReelSEO: “The overwhelming response within the online video industry is that this move by Google will set the adoption of HTML5 video back even further, and for online video publishers, this creates even more confusion and potentially a massive increase in video publishing costs… Google’s move will likely slow the transition to HTML5 and away from Flash by creating more confusion about which codec to use for HTML5 video, which benefits Google by hurting Apple (since Apple doesn’t want to support Flash); but makes it worse for users.”

Google’s Stated Reason for Dumping H.264 is Disingenuous

First off, there’s H.264’s ubiquity factor. Techcrunch reported in May of last year that H.264 is arguably the most popular video standard currently on the Internet, making up about 66 percent of videos in existence on the Web today. (Ironically, Google shares approximately this same percentage of the total search market.) That’s largely because Apple and Microsoft – the big competitors to Google – are both huge supporters of H.264.  Google’s WebM does have notable backers including Adobe, Mozilla (builder of the popular Firefox browser) and Opera, but for Google to dump the most popular codec today is as problematic for businesses as if those same businesses tried to dump Google itself.

Second, Google’s open-source defense is partially bogus. Google’s argument for dropping H.264 is that “our goal is to enable open innovation.” Now, it’s true that WebM is a royalty-free video standard, with no current licensing fees in any form. But H.264 is royalty-free as long as it’s distributed for free, so the licensing restrictions on H.264 are basically gone. (Otherwise, companies have to pay a licensing fee to MPEG LA, the group that owns the patents on the format.) Paying a licensing fee for commercial distribution of H.264 has never been a serious issue of contention for the people making any money in the codec industry. (That is, people other than Google.)

Also, Google’s open-source argument is a blatant hypocrisy; the company is dropping H.264 but not Flash. Flash, is not an open source codec, yet it will continue to be supported. This has raised the ire of many bloggers such as John Gruber of Daring Fireball, who calls Google a hypocrite for embracing one not-open standard while shelving another.

And third, support for WebM (vp8) isn’t comparable to H.264. To the best of my knowledge and discussions with web video publishers, there is no WebM conversion tool, either hardware or software based, that’s anywhere close to the performance of what’s available now for H.264.  This may change in time, but today, it’s not reality.

One commentator on Slashdot expressed it succinctly: Google is advancing a codec that’s controlled by themselves, at the expense of a codec “that is a legitimate open standard controlled by a multi-vendor governance process managed by reputable international standards bodies.”

The Real Reason Behind Google’s Strategic Move

I believe what it really comes down do with Google is this: Google’s priority is what’s best for them in terms of leverage, rather than what’s best for the Internet.

Kless has summed up what this is really about: A high-stakes battle for a video standard for the Web and mobile devices. “Many are speculating that this is just a strategically timed announcement to steal Apple’s thunder of from its Verizon iPhone announcement, at least in the short term, and also to upset Apple’s position in the mobile device and digital media industry. The lack of a single codec standard that is supported across web browsers is not only a serious issue for publishers, but a stalemate for the industry.”

Google certainly hasn’t done a good job of convincing any professional bloggers covering the web video industry that this move is really about promoting open-source technology, like they claim. On the contrary, it’s created a backlash. A lot of the conversations over the move have been taking on the tone of what you’ll find at Slashdot, where people are arguing that Google is manipulating the market for selfish reasons, to reap hundreds of billions for themselves from future WebM device sales. Google has long-proclaimed their motto, “Don’t Be Evil.” However, greed appears to be the motive here.

How Video Marketers Can Best Prepare for the “Codec Wars”

So in light of this unfortunate news of moving further away from a video standard for Web and mobile, and making our work more difficult, how should we adjust? What can marketers and web video professionals do to prepare for the upcoming drop in support for H.264 in Chrome? The way I see it, we have three basic options:

Option 1: Budget for extra time and expenses

If you decide it’s still best to have your Web video compatible with the Google Chrome Web browser and WebM devices, then be prepared for setting aside extra work, time, and money – or to partner with a technology provider that automates the encoding process for you. As Kless reports, video content publishers who opt to support WebM/VP8 “will have to go back to encoding multiple versions of their videos in different file formats and codecs, primarily in H.264, WebM and even Flash.” There will now most likely be additional costs involved in delivering video to all web browsers and mobile devices. That’s because you’re expected to encode twice (and maybe even 3 times) – once in H.264, for Flash users, and again in WebM, for HTML5 users; and maybe again for H.264 users. That’s also double and possibly three times the work and storage requirements you’ll have.

Option 2: Stick with Flash

Many publishers may opt take the easy way out and go back to delivering video in Flash, since the Flash Player is baked into Chrome and Flash video will play on all the browsers.” However, this also means being stuck working with an inferior video technology to HTML5. blip.tv’s Co-founder Justin Day has opined that most Chrome users will suffer from a worse user experience than on other browsers, because they will need to rely on Flash fallback.

Option 3: Wait it out

Day also points out that Chrome is a relatively small player compared to Internet Explorer and Firefox, which occupy the #1 and #2 positions in Web browser market share.  “But in just about two years since its launch, Chrome’s market share is currently about 13.5%, which is about twice that of Opera and Safari combined.” So it will be interesting to consider what’s to come in the years ahead with this browser’s audience growth.

So what’s a web video marketer to do? Get a head start? Stick with Flash? Or, wait it out and see what happens? Google has announced that the announced changes will occur in the next couple months, which they say will give “content publishers and developers using HTML an opportunity to make any necessary changes to their sites.”

What we have seen in the past tells us that a Web browser can successfully gain a good market share without having to support H.264. After all, neither Firefox nor Opera have native H.264 support. Outside of a public backlash to the level of getting Google to change its scrupulous plans (which appears at this point to be unlikely), professionals in the web video industry are going to have to accept that this is a move backward for an open standard, and more work for us on account of Google’s greed.

Hopefully it won’t set back our industry for too long.

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