Baseline Codecs for web video

Posted on Mon 17 January 2011 in geek

A lot of 'net comment has been generated in the last few days following Google's announcement that they will be dropping support for H.264 in future versions of their Chromium browser. They expound on their decision here.

In making this move they join the ranks of Mozilla in supporting Open Video in web-pages. The trouble with H.264 is that while it is a documented standard it's not a free one. To implement a H.264 codec you have to use patented techniques that are controlled by the MPEG-LA. Despite claims that licenses will be given away freely for decoding non-commercial video it doesn't meet the requirements of Free Software which needs to be able to distribute implementations freely and without additional restrictions. It's a problem the Open Source world has been talking about for years and it's good that Google are bringing these concerns to a wider audience.

For all practical purposes the change will have little effect for my day to day browsing. I can already view pretty much any video format on my Linux Desktop and if Chromium has to pass decoding to a plugin instead of doing it within the browser I probably won't even notice. This will have more of an effect on Apple's iOS devices (iPhones and iPads) when places like YouTube switch to using either WebM or fall back to a Flash based player. Even today you can't browse a large amount of media on Wikipedia which favours free software compatible audio and video formats. That is because Apple refuse to add support for these alternative codecs to their mobile OS. Not surprisingly they also have a vested interest in H.264 becoming the de facto format for video on the web being one of the many licensees represented by the MPEG-LA.

It's noticeable that the majority of the comments on Google's blog involve people throwing their Chrome shaped toys out of the pram and returning to Safari. Windows users will I assume have the same ability as me to handle formats via plugins instead of native browser support. It does lead me to think that their anger is somewhat misdirected when aimed at Google.

A number of people have pointed out there is a degree of hypocrisy in Google's stated support for open web standards while their browser (in non-free software form) still supports Flash and MP3s which have similar issues. I'm willing to concede this isn't ideal from a software freedom perspective. However I'm happy to accept their pragmatic point about this being a statement on support for open codecs for the emerging <video> tag without wanting to cripple the browser for the amount existing content out there. Now is very much the time to make stand over video lest we repeat the mistakes of MP3's and GIF's in the rush of companies to stake out their own little revenue generating area of what should be the free and open standards that underpin the web.