In a controversial move, Google has decided to drop support for the H.264 video codec from Chrome. At the moment, much of the web’s video content is encoded as H.264 (including video from Google’s own YouTube). In addition, H.264 is a widely used codec for HTML5 video, which aims to replace Flash as the preferred way to serve video to users.
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.
Google claims to be for an “open internet”, so removing support for H.264 from Chrome comes across as a questionable move at first glance. The H.264 codec is owned by MPEG LA, and while they do not currently charge royalty fees to use it, there is no guarantee that they won’t use their control over the codec for nefarious purposes in the future. In fact, the creators of the GIF file format did just that in 1999. Unisys allowed companies to use the GIF format without licensing or fees for a number of years, then spontaneously decided to force companies to pay thousands of dollars in royalties. This is the type of scenario Google is trying to prevent with their recently launched WebM project, which aspires to provide content publishers with a truly open codec technology. MPEG LA has amended the H.264 agreement to “not charge royalties for Internet video that is free to end users through life of license“, but this change doesn’t not ensure that all users (notably for-profit entities) will be exempt from possible future royalty charges after 2015.
In the short term, the removal of support for the H.264 codec from Chrome will lead to further dependence on Flash video (which Apple has abandoned) and may ruffle some feathers as publishers attempt to implement a universal method of serving video content. But, in the long run, the move towards WebM will prove to be an admirable decision.