Google’s H.264 Move: The ‘Right Thing’ or the ‘Worst Thing’ for Web Standards?

As one of the titans of not just the computing world in general but the open source world as well, Google tends to make waves every time it makes a move.

It’s not often, though, that its moves cause a virtual typhoon of controversy.

That, however, is pretty much what followed the search giant’s announcement last week that it would soon drop support for the H.264 codec in its Chrome browser.

“We are changing Chrome’s HTML5 <video> support to make it consistent with the codecs already supported by the open Chromium project,” Google product manager Mike Jazayeri explained in a blog post last week.

“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,” Jazayeri added. “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.”

‘Ballsy Move, Google’

They say the sound of an approaching tornado is much like that of a freight train; amplify that tenfold, and you’d have some sense of the magnitude of the reaction on the Linux blogs.

More than 700 comments appeared in short order at the end of Jazayeri’s post, and the reverberations are still being felt all the way to the far reaches of the blogosphere.

“Whoah, ballsy move Google. Ballsy move,” wrote Andrex on the Chromium blog, for example. “I like it.”

‘The Worst Thing’

Similarly: “Those are great news for the open source software and for the developers,” opined Abe. “The codecs war is almost over. Your move Apple.”

On the other hand: “Wow, this is the worst thing to happen to web standards I’ve seen in a long time,” countered Eridius. “This just reinforces the notion that Google doesn’t care about users.”

It soon became clear that opinions on the matter tended toward the extreme. Linux Girl knew it was time to learn more.

‘The Triumph of Flash’

“This is about the WORST decision they could have made!” Slashdot blogger hairyfeet exclaimed. “It will kill the HTML V5 video tag dead! Why? Because web developers aren’t gonna deal with having to deal with a divided web, with half only being able to use one, and half another.”

The end result, hairyfeet predicted, will be “the overwhelming triumph of flash!

“That’s right, after all that work they did on HTML V5 it will all be for naught, because by sticking with flash they will be able to play H.264 in ALL the major browsers (even Firefox supports it now thanks to a MSFT plugin) so they will simply drop H.264 content into flash while leaving the raw H.264 file accessible for those on iDevices,” hairyfeet added.

‘How Could They Be So Stupid?’

Both Microsoft and Apple have committed to H.264 as the future, hairyfeet pointed out.

“So in the end all this did was shoot Chrome right in the foot and make sure that flash is here to stay,” he concluded. “All they did was to ensure Linux users will continue to have a lousy experience via bad flash support while giving Adobe the keys to the kingdom.

“Meanwhile I’m sure that MSFT and Mozilla are probably dancing for joy,” hairyfeet added. “After all their browsers will ‘just work’ while Google’s won’t. How could they be so stupid?”

‘Flash on Android Is Unbearable’

Google’s move will also “make WebM the only reasonable way to display videos on Android phones, since flash on Android is unbearable,” Montreal consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack pointed out.

“The only way for H264 to be acceptable for FOSS would be for them to provide a permanently free license instead of for just the next few years,” Mack added.

A “tempest in a teacup” was Barbara Hudson’s summary of the whole debate, however.

“To the end user, it obviously makes absolutely no difference if video is delivered via h.264, flash, WebM, or by Shrek’s second cousin channeling Charles Manson,” explained Hudson, a blogger on Slashdot who goes by “Tom” on the site. “It’s still more than 99 percent junk, and if you’ve ever dealt with a business customer who doesn’t understand why they can’t email you their oh-so-important (not) 3-gig promo video so you can transcode it for their web site, you know *exactly* what I mean.”

‘The Right Thing’

In fact, “video seems to have hijacked the whole HTML5 debate, when it’s a very small portion of the specification, and the spec intentionally does NOT specify which video formats must be supported,” Hudson pointed out. “That’s one reason why it’s an OPEN specification.”

In that respect, “Google is complying with the spirit of the spec more than the h.264 proponents, who are pushing a proprietary solution that favors the rent-seekers and toll-keepers over consumers,” she opined. “Google is doing the right thing, both by the spec, and by consumers.”

In fact, “the world would be better off abandoning all ‘proprietary’ file formats/codecs/operating systems/applications,” blogger Robert Pogson concluded. “The world should use open standards and Free Software to really enjoy IT and get the best out of IT — the world does not need corporations that sell us handcuffs to enslave us.”

‘The Results Will Be Confusing’

Perhaps the best summary of all, however, came from Hyperlogos blogger Martin Espinoza.

“As far as I can tell,” Espinoza told Linux Girl, “it means that no matter who wins, the results will be confusing.”

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