Yesterday Google announced that they will be removing H.264 support in for Chrome in the near future. What’s the alternative? “Open source” says Google. If you’re not up and up on the video encoding scene, H.264 might just look like a block of numbers, and why would Google want to go open source? We’ll explain just that in the rest of this article.
What is H.264?
Also known as MPEG-4 AVC, H.264 is a video compression algorithm (codec). As a codec, it is designed to take large video files and compress them down in size while still maintaining quality that is visible to the human eyes and ears, and it does so quite well. You’ll see H.264 in use when you watch YouTube videos (although that is changing soon), iTunes movies, Blu-Ray, Flash videos, and really anything viewed with QuickTime. It is a common format all over the web.
Now that HTML5 is becoming the web standard, there is a new tag that one can simply insert into a web page to provide in-page video playback. Some browsers use H.264 to support this, but other browsers are currently using the open-source alternative Ogg Theora. When put side-by-side, Theora has been proven inferior to H.264 in quality and efficiency. Google is currently working on a new engine driven by WebM that is going to blow Theora away, a codec known as VP8; it is currently used on YouTube for all videos higher than 720p and they are continuing to roll it out to 100% of their videos.
The problem with H.264 is that it is patented and currently owned by multiple different companies (including Apple), all under the roof of a patent company known as MPEG LA. This means that in countries that recognize software patents, companies that use this format will have to pay licensing fees. The licensing fees can be pretty hefty, with the highest possible fee being $5 million.
If MPEG-4 isn’t free, how come everyone uses it?
Well, this is the tricky part. As shown in MPEG LA’s press release, it is absolutely free to use H.264 format to encode internet video content, as long as that content is provided free to end users (aka Mr. average Joe video watcher). However it also specifically states that paid services and encoderes/decoders will still be subject to royalties. The amount paid in royalties depends entirely upon the user base of the licensee.
Not everyone uses it. Currently Chrome, Internet Explorer (via Silverlight), and Safari are the only browsers that directly decode H.264 into viewable media. Firefox and the rest of the browsers out there make use of Adobe Flash, where Adobe is the one paying the $5 million license fee per year; because as you know Flash is still huge! For companies like Google and Microsoft, $5 mill is chump change but they are also large enough to know it’s a mistake to build a key foundation on a competitors technology. What may be $5 mill this year might be $1 billion next.
The open-source alternative
Google announced that they are going the WebM route, and along with them Firefox, Opera, and Adobe are jumping onboard the VP8 codec train. While it isn’t quite on par or as popular as H.264, it is open source, free to all, and developing much faster.
It can’t all be good
There aren’t many downsides to move away from H.264, but some have complained. The current problem with VP8, though it supports hardware accelerated video, is that it isn’t supported by most hardware. It is simply too new, and it needs time to let chip manufacturers catch up.
Google moving purely to open video via WebM is a good thing for everyone, but it is coming just a little early. However if Google were to wait, H.264 could standardize the market even further and entrench itself so deep that it would take years for open-source to compete. Right now they are nipping it in the bud, and as we wait for more support for VP8, Adobe will reap some temporary rewards via Flash’s support for both H.264 and the upcoming VP8 compliant release.