The web’s open and community-driven development model is a key factor in its rapid evolution and ubiquitous adoption. The WebM Project was launched last year to bring an open, world-class video codec to the web. Since the launch, we’ve seen first-hand the benefits of an open development model.
With a single blog post to the Chromium Blog, Google has opened up a pretty hefty can of worms when it comes to web video in the Chrome browser. WebM, if you’re not familiar, is a Google-backed project that is an open video standard. H.264 is widely adopted (think YouTube, among others) and plays on a variety of formats. But every time that it is used, a royalty has to be paid to MPEG LA, the owner of H.264.
Ultimately, Google’s decision to drop support for H.264 is likely a good one. But the immediate problems are going to be difficult to deal with. As John Gruber points out on his blog, Daring Fireball, there is a bit of confusion that is brought about by Google’s choice:
Here’s a thought. If Google is dropping support for H.264 because their “goal is to enable open innovation”, why don’t they alsodrop support for closed plugins like Flash Player? As it stands now, Chrome not only supports Flash, it ships with its own embedded copy of Flash. I don’t see how Google keeps Flash but drops H.264 in the name of “openness” without being seen as utter hypocrites.
Now, let’s talk about the rest of the world as we know it — YouTube uses H.264. Google will have to re-encode everything on the site to WebM. Android supports H.264 and is maintained by Google. Will Google drop the support? What about the other major sites that use H.264 streaming? As Gruber points out, it’s up to them to accept WebM (or Theora) as a standard in order to continue to be played within the Chrome browser.
But why does any of it matter? Simply speaking, Chrome is growing faster than almost any browser in history. Moreover, Google hasn’t yet stated whether it would drop support for the Flash codec (which also plays H.264, mind you) which is anything but “open”. These are the immediate issues that you, as a Chrome user, will be subject to dealing with.
The end result, if WebM is widely adopted, would actually be good for the user. Truly open codecs open the door to support from a massive number of platforms and holds the promise of ending “not compatible with your browser” messages. But, as the Internet has gone, we’ve very seldom seen wide adoption of open standards and the WebM fight has only just begun.
For now, you likely won’t notice any changes. The Chromium Blog states that the changes will go into effect within the “next couple months”. Let’s cross our fingers that content providers can come up with a happy medium in that time, else our beloved Chrome browser could feel some ill effect from gutsy changes by the Google camp.