Chrome Drops Support for H.264 Video

Today brought another big development in the world of HTML5 video, which I’ve been covering for some time. Via the Chromium blog, Google has announced that it will drop support for the H.264 video codec in its Chrome browser, preferring instead to focus on Google’s open-source WebM format, as well as the older Ogg Theora codec. This brings Chrome in line with Firefox and Opera in terms of codec support.

Quoth Google:

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.

The overall tone of the comments on the announcement post seems negative, which is surprising, at least to me. I can’t help but see this as a good thing, as I’ve been a proponent of a move to a fully open solution for HTML5 video for some time. Of course, with IE9 only supporting WebM if the codec is installed in Windows separately, and Apple’s Safari remaining the lone holdout to only support H.264, we’re probably still a good long way away from being able to provide HTML5 video in a single format and have it work seamlessly across browsers.

But even Adobe has promised to support VP8 video (the video codec underlying the WebM format) in the Flash player. WebM support in the Flash player would almost bring us to the point where we could encode our video once (in WebM), and wrap it up with Flash as a fallback for browsers that don’t support the codec (Safari and IE). However, that will still leave one niggling group of users whose browsers support neither WebM nor Flash: iOS.

So, again, it would appear that it’s Apple’s move.

What are your thoughts? Is this a step in the right direction for Chrome, and for the Web at large? Do you think Apple will eventually cave?

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  • http://sffarlenn.net Laneth

    Until I’d read this, I’d forgotten that H.264 wasn’t open, so I’d have to agree with you about it being a good thing. Now to go fix my RT :P

    • Louis Simoneau

      Your RT was ambiguous enough that one could have interpreted it as “WHAT!? This is AWESOME!”

      • http://sffarlenn.net Laneth

        Heh, thanks :) I got some reaction from it – more than I can say for many of my tweets ;P

  • http://www.azhowto.com descarte

    i concur with open standards. Don’t make life difficult for everyone.

  • -ck-

    I’m betting Firefox and Chrome users (and presumably Chrome OS?) will basically now be forced to watch h.264 via Flash. Everyone else (Safari, IE9, iOS, Android) will get native h.264 support (CPU/GPU optimised) without the burden of Flash…

  • kaf

    Good news. Screw apple. Eventually YouTube will run exclusively on WebM and then apple will have to capitulate or be left behind. (Though they haven’t seemed to mind being behind everyone else in the past… so long as the RDF is still working)

    Very soon we can start using the video tag with a degree of confidence.

  • Kristen Holden

    Let the Apple vs everybody else flaming begin! :)

    • http://p163.sg angelee

      oh please, this is not techcrunch.. lol, most people there are roaring!

      So is Chrome beginning to breathe hard these days? I’m not really familiar particularly with this issue, but was frustrated with a browser check I did yesterday, Chrome used to work fine but..

      • kaf

        Still does work fine…

  • wwb_99

    I think it might be good for the web, but we’ll have to support H264 for a while in any case. It is getting pushed into all manner of CE devices and most of the world still watches their video on a TV not a computer. Even if the TV is a computer.

  • EastCoast

    In reality this doesn’t change anything with regards to the typical end user, nor for the pragmatic developer who cares more about wide spread access for their online video media than fighting technological religious battles.

    If you have a single h.264 file played back by a video tag, with swfobject inserting a flash player using the same video for non html5/h.264 viewers, then you are catering for the vast majority of scenarios painlessly.

  • PetitPaul

    For Apple to move to WebM is not as easy as it seems as both iDevices and Apple PCs have hardware acceleration fo h.264. To support WebM wouldn’t be such an issue, I guess, but it wouldn’t play nicely without hardware acceleration. Which would only be available in new products.
    The other question is: is WebM superior or at the minimum equal in quality to h.264? I heard not.

    • http://www.lunadesign.org awasson

      The question (for me) is about maintaining an “open” web by preventing proprietary technologies from gaining a foothold.

      If hardware acceleration makes h.264 a better experience on Apple hardware then is stands to reason that WebM can also benefit from tweaking the hardware. If WebM becomes the standard accepted by industry then they will invest in making it the best.

  • dmathe

    Finally, everyone will stick with Flash-based players because it’s less complicated, and the video tag will die.

    The MPEG-LA will only charge companies that deliver content that is not free (like renting movies, or buying them online). Since these companies will earn money with this content, what’s the problem with them paying for having the right to use H264? For me, the debate “open-source vs proprietary” is useless: all this will end with another big headache for anyone who wants to display video content in his web pages.

  • Adam Bolte

    I don’t buy those “but our hardware only supports h.264″ arguments. ffmpeg adapted their H.264 support a while back to also add in VP8, in just 1400 lines of extra code because the codecs are so similar.

    http://blogs.gnome.org/rbultje/2010/06/27/googles-vp8-video-codec/

    As such, lots of hardware decoding functionality should also be VP8 compatible – assuming manufacturers bother to release updates. Besides – what’s the average life-span of a mobile phone these days? 12 months? Maybe 18? Hardware decoders that fully support VP8 will be everywhere before you know it (except maybe on iGroans).

    It’s about time H.264 was given the flick.

    • wwb_99

      We are just starting to see H.264-friendly set top boxes and TVs. At least in the US, that is typically a 5+ year lifecycle for those appliances. And yes, some 2011 model TVs are running webkit and play youtube.

      Moreover, it took lots of groaning, whining and persuasion to get the CE industry to start putting H.264 chips into stuff. And now you go and change the rules on them. Which really goes back to why they were hesitant to build support into things in the first place.

      • WhatsupThen

        “And yes, some 2011 model TVs are running webkit and play youtube.”

        Actually, most of them are running Opera.

  • Sherman Unkefer

    Is there anybody else out there who cannot get the Yahoo answers category selection drop down boxes to work using Chrome as a browser?
    I’m trying to select a category and I get these three drop down boxes, but they are empty, and won’t drop down.
    How to I fix this, or do I need to use a different browser?
    Thanks
    http://twitter.com/shermanunkefer

  • Graeme

    As I understand it, and do correct me if I’m wrong, but h264 is an open standard but not open source, where as webM is open source but not an open standard…

  • Louis Simoneau

    Regarding the hardware implementations, I think that will move faster than a lot of people expect: http://blog.webmproject.org/2011/01/availability-of-webm-vp8-video-hardware.html

    • Adam Bolte

      Nice!

  • Raul

    This seems like a terrible idea to me, it will set back adoption of HTML5 video even further and provide no benefit to the end user. It will take years for webM to get the support in terms of encoder software, hardware acceleration, and content that H.264 already has. Not to mention how much longer it will take after the H.264 patent holders sue the crap out of this.

    Their statement aslo comes off as hypocritical because they are still supporting the 100% proprietary Adobe Flash.

    side note: this question would make a great site point poll

    • Louis Simoneau

      I can’t see how it’s setting anything back at all. H.264 is a non-starter because browsers like Firefox will never be able to support it. And Chrome is now exactly on the same level of support as both Firefox and Opera.

      • wwb_99

        How so? Firefox does not support it because they don’t want to support it, not because of any technical reason.

      • WhatsupThen

        No, Firefox can’t support it because of the licensing issues (remember that Mozilla is not the only one dependent on Firefox).

      • WhatsupThen

        Also, it’s the “tiny” matter of an open web, which h264 is incompatible with.

    • Bermused

      Why is Flash such a bad thing??? The player is free and developers can decide to use it or not. I still can’t see the problem. Being forced to convert everything to video to use the html5 tags is a much bigger challenge .

      • EastCoast

        You’re getting flash mixed up as a video format, where as nowadays it’s used as a playback device for video (practically nobody still encodes to h263/on2 vp6 .flv’s). With the current split for/against h.264/webM, it’s likely to continue to be essential to video playback -as a player- for a long time to come for anybody that needs wide compatibility without encoding to a 90′s style collection of multiple video formats.

        The video played back by flash is almost all now h.264 mp4′s, and Adobe have committed to also support webM in a forthcoming version of the player. It adds extra capabilities on the player side that are important for online broadcasting that are not yet widely available purely within html5. Read what google themselves have to say about it with regards to youtube here: http://apiblog.youtube.com/2010/06/flash-and-html5-tag.html

  • Chaos

    Do video formats really have to be a HTML standards battle?!

    WHY?

    A standard can define, but it also has to offer fallback alternatives.

    Do people remember the early days of divx? A chaos of codecs for video and sound that followed and tens of codec packs. Nowadays I use FFDshow + Media player classic or VLC to tune down the chaos.

    Why not let developers and video producers decide what they want to use to fit their needs or maybe the needs of users because they have the final say?

    Why not make codecs, splitters and others; plugins for browsers like Flash is?

    • WhatsupThen

      “Why not let developers and video producers decide what they want to use to fit their needs or maybe the needs of users because they have the final say?”

      Because the web needs to be open. Closed technologies like h264 are a threat to the open web.

  • goldfidget

    Google owns webM. They have 22% of the market share, of course they’re going to try to push it as the standard. In the medium to long term we’ll thank them for it too.

    Nobody owns the web, that’s one of the fundamental principles. Patented tech shouldn’t sit at the heart of it, no matter how inconvenient this makes things for the next year or so.

    • http://www.lunadesign.org awasson

      Yes and MPEG LA a private company owns h.264. They claim that they won’t charge end users for its use however they do license out its use to anyone who decodes h.264 it in their product.

    • WhatsupThen

      “Google owns webM.”

      Actually, WebM is a separate open-source project sponsored by Google and others.

  • nicklo

    I think it would be naive to believe that “openness” is the real motivation behind this decision. For a start, are you all sure that WebM is completely “open”:

    “First, WebM is not truly an open technology because it almost certainly uses patents owned by MPEG-LA or its members. Right now, the patent holders are ignoring it because it’s too small to bother with. ”

    http://www.zdnet.com/blog/burnette/chrome-users-are-the-latest-casualty-in-googles-crusade-against-apple/2158

    I also cannot see this moving us away from plugin requirements like Flash to HTML5 and , when Google is pushing yet another plugin for Safari and IE9:

    http://techcrunch.com/2011/01/14/webm-plugins/

    • nicklo

      The HTML5 video tag was stripped from my comment which should have read: “…from plugin requirements like Flash to HTML5 and [video], when Google…”

    • http://www.lunadesign.org awasson

      “First, WebM is not truly an open technology because it almost certainly uses patents owned by MPEG-LA or its members. Right now, the patent holders are ignoring it because it’s too small to bother with. “

      Until that is proven in (any) court, that is just an opinion or theory. WebM is based on VP8 and although the people at MPEG-LA have made overtures to WebM to create a patent pool because they are concerned about “the similarity between VP8 and H.264″, other researchers cite evidence that On2 (the tech company that Google acquired for VP8) made a particular effort to avoid any MPEG LA patents.

      WebM code is offered under a standard BSD license and the FSF considers the WebM license to be compatible with the GNU General Public License.

      So that leads me to believe that going forward WebM is the better standard for video unless MPEG-LA can prove that its technology infringes on it’s intellectual property. For me it is key that whatever standard we use is unencumbered by software patents.