The Social Analyst is a column by Mashable Co-Editor Ben Parr, where he digs into social media trends and how they are affecting companies in the space.

Google is preparing for war with Apple and Microsoft over the future of web video, and the rest of will be caught in the crossfire.

Earlier this week, Google quietly announced that it would be phasing out Chrome support for H.264, the video codec and standard supported by Adobe Flash, Blu-ray, Internet Explorer, Safari and others. Instead, it will be supporting WebM and Ogg Theora, which are supported by Mozilla and Opera.

What Google hoped would be a small footnote turned into a tidal wave of criticism. Google was chastised for turning its back on “open innovation” by dropping a more widely used codec for a lesser-used one. Compounded by the fact that Google is a strong supporter of Adobe and Flash, and it’s easy to see why the firestorm started in the first place.


Why Is Google Against H.264?


After several days of being slammed in the media, Google finally responded and wrote the post it should have written in the first place.

First, Google’s Mike Jazayeri clarified that Google Chrome would only stop supporting H.264 in HTML5, not in Flash or other forms of media. Then he dove into the problem surrounding the HTML5 <video> tag:

“As it stands, the organizations involved in defining the HTML video standard are at an impasse. There is no agreement on which video codec should be the baseline standard. Firefox and Opera support the open WebM and Ogg Theora codecs and will not support H.264 due to its licensing requirements; Safari and IE9 support H.264. With this status quo, all publishers and developers using the <video> tag will be forced to support multiple formats.”

Google has come to the conclusion that there will never be agreement on H.264, since it is proprietary technology owned by MPEG LA, a firm that forms and licenses patent pools. Thus the search giant decided to draw a line in the sand and double down on the WebM. WebM, for those of you who may not remember, is the open codec/standard for web video created by Google.

Unlike H.264, WebM/VP8′s patents have been released royalty-free. Apple and Microsoft are part of H.264′s patent pool, as are companies like Sony, Sharp, Cisco, LG Electronics, Hp, Toshiba and Dolby. Absent from the list: Mozilla and Google.

The tech titan also addressed the criticism that it should have selected H.264 as its baseline codec because of its wider adoption:

“To use and distribute H.264, browser and OS vendors, hardware manufacturers, and publishers who charge for content must pay significant royalties—with no guarantee the fees won’t increase in the future. To companies like Google, the license fees may not be material, but to the next great video startup and those in emerging markets these fees stifle innovation.”

Google also argued in its response that a community development process is superior to one where multiple parties have incentives to collect patent royalties.


Neither Side Will Budge


While Google may not have intended to start a war, it has essentially drawn the battle lines and made it clear that there will be no compromise. On the one hand, you have Google, Opera, Mozilla and and its WebM allies, which include WinAmp, Skype, AMD, Broadcom, Qualcomm, Logitech and Nvidia. On the other hand, you have the participants of the H.264 patent pool. There isn’t a single company that is part of both WebM and H.264.

The final paragraph of Google’s response may be the most telling thing in this whole affair, though:

“Bottom line, we are at an impasse in the evolution of HTML video. Having no baseline codec in the HTML specification is far from ideal. This is why we’re joining others in the community to invest in WebM and encouraging every browser vendor to adopt it for the emerging HTML video platform (the WebM Project team will soon release plugins that enable WebM support in Safari and IE9 via the HTML standard <video> tag). Our choice was to make a decision today and invest in open technology to move the platform forward, or to accept the status quo of a fragmented platform where the pace of innovation may be clouded by the interests of those collecting royalties. Seen in this light, we are choosing to bet on the open web and are confident this decision will spur innovation that benefits users and the industry.”

Google says that it hopes that the other browsers will adopt WebM, but it’s clear they already know that won’t happen. Why else would Google build Safari and IE 9 plugins to add WebM support into those browsers?

The inability for both sides to compromise will almost certainly stifle the growth of innovation surrounding HTML5 video. Why would anybody invest time and money into a technology that will only work in some browsers, when Flash is guaranteed to work in all browsers (except Mobile Safari)?

Unless both sides find a way to compromise, the future of web video will continue to be in Adobe’s hands. We doubt either side is going to budge anytime soon. The citizens of the web will end up being the losers of this affair.

More About: chrome, Google, google chrome, h.264, HTML 5, HTML5, Opinion, trending, video, webm, youtube

About half a year after Google announced its WebM video codec at Google I/O, Chromium has made some interesting announcements on how the open-source browser project plans to support open-source video.

Chromium Project Manager Mike Jazayeri writes that his team is “changing Chrome’s HTML5 <video> support to make it consistent with the codecs already supported by the open Chromium project.” That means WebM (VP8) will be supported, as will the open-source codec Theora. H.264, on the other hand, will be phased out.

When Google rolled out WebM back in May 2010, we were excited by the possibilities for this open-source, royalty-free format for online video. The technology uses the VP8 codec that Google acquired in February 2009.

Google has been using the WebM format in its HTML5 YouTube experiment with mixed results.

Now, Jazayeri writes that only open-source video codecs will be supported. So far, these codecs include WebM and Theora, a traditionally inferior and still developing technology, as far as playback is concerned.

The H.264 standard has been around since 2003 and has gained a great deal of traction during that time. Still, it’s technically not an open technology. The entity that controls licensing for H.264 video says it will refrain from collecting royalties until the end of 2015. So while the technology is free for now, it’s still proprietary. And in the world of die-hard FOSS advocacy, that’s a huge no-no.

It’s also likely no coincidence that H.264 is strongly supported by Apple and has been for many years.

Jazayeri writes, “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.”

While the FOSS love-fest is a thing of beauty, more than one commenter on the Chromium blog post pointed out the impracticality of Google’s lack of ideological and technical support for one of the most widely used video codecs on the web.

As one person wrote, “This is a move by Google where they care more about the open source ‘community’ than they do actual users of their browser. Let’s be real here: WebM has a LONG way to go before it will have any serious amount of traction, and Theora is a joke. Like it or now, H.264 is becoming the standard, and dropping support for it for no good reason is ridiculous.”

We’ll see how the web video “wars” play out and will continue to report on newsworthy updates in this area. In the meantime, we’d love to get your opinions in the comments. Is support for open technologies — even flawed ones — better than support for proprietary technologies, no matter how ubiquitous?

Image based on photo from Flickr user Damon Duncan.

More About: browser, Chromium, codec, Google, h.264, HTML5, theora, video

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