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Google to Boot H.264 Support from Chrome

MOUNTAIN VIEW, CALIF.: Google is dropping support for H.264 from its Chrome browser.

“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 product manager Mike Jazayeri wrote at The Chromium Blog.

Google is dumping H.264/MPEG-4 in favor of its own video compression codec, WebM, an open source codec the search giant released last year. Jazayeri said Chrome would be outfitted to support WebM, aka VP8, and Theora, “and will consider adding support for other high-quality open codes in the future.”

The changes will take place within the next couple of months. The announcement is being made now “to give content publishers and developers using HTML video an opportunity to make necessary changes to their sites,” Jazareyi said.

Adobe Flash Player, one of the most popular online, uses H.264, as does Microsoft’s more recently introduced Silverlight. WebM is far less ubiquitous, having been launched last May. Firefox 4 and Opera 10.6 support it for HTML5 video. Internet Explorer 9, currently in public beta, does not yet support WebM, but is expected to through third-party plug-ins.

Google has around a 10 percent market share with Chrome, according to NetMarketShare. Earlier versions of iE have a grip on the browser market with a 57 percent share. Firefox is at 23 percent, Safari, at 6 percent, and Opera stands at around 2 percent.

Justin Day, co-founder and chief technology officer of blip.tv, said the change wasn’t a huge impediment, but still a bit of a headache. Blip.tv is an online venue for professional content providers.

“Our current HTML5 player in testing already uses Flash as a fallback video component so it’s likely we would rely on that rather than double encode everything,” Day said. “At the end of the day, it doesn’t really change much since Firefox doesn’t support H.264 either. That said it’s frustrating to have another hurdle to get over in a technology already fraught with hurdles.

Some observers speculated that Google was seeking to avoid license fees for H.264, which is licensed through MPEG LA. That group recently announced that it would extend H.264’s free use for free Internet video through the end of the current term, Dec. 31, 2015. (See “MPEG LA Frees H.264.”) WebM will continue to be available royalty free.

Researchers at Moscow State University pitted WebM against H.264 last year, though conceded a home-field advantage for H.264, because they had no WebM source material. ( See “Moscow Lab Compares H.264 and Google’s VP8.”)

“I think from our standpoint this looks like a regression,” Day said. “We’re all for open formats, but they should be chosen based on their merits, not merely their license. The fact is, that the open source encoders we use make higher quality video at a lower cost using H.264. Unless WebM can outperform H.264, it doesn’t make sense for us to support it. This move means that Chrome users will suffer from a worse user experience because they will need to rely on Flash fallback.”
-- Deborah D. McAdams