We’ve said it before. And it deserves saying it again (until someone fixes it). Video on the web is a huge mess.
It’s nearly 20 years after public access internet and there’s still no open, usable standard for web video that just works on all major browsers, on all major platforms, desktop, notebook, tablet, or handheld. It’s a mess. Google just made it worse.
What’s Really Wrong?
Without getting into the really gory details, let me try to condense the issues. Internet web video is a huge mess because no one can agree on what it should be, what video file format should be used.
The web’s de facto video format and player is Adobe’s Flash. Unless you have a popular smart phone or tablet device, where the Flash video player’s performance remains crummy.
Flash video player also plays the increasingly popular H.264 video file standard, which isn’t open and free (owned and managed by a consortium of patent holders) but is backed by major players, including Apple, Microsoft, and, until now, Google.
Microsoft’s popular Windows Media Video format also gets a large share of usage, but, like Flash video, has waned in popularity as H.264 has increased. Apple, of course, has QuickTime video for Mac and Windows, but has moved focus and resources to H.264.
What’s wrong? Too many proprietary web video standards. And they don’t all play well together in today’s popular web browsers, from Microsoft Internet Explorer, to Apple’s Safari, to Mozilla’s Firefox, to Google’s increasingly popular Chrome.
For example, H.264 video runs fine in Safari and Chrome, and most handheld devices, but isn’t supported by Firefox, which accounts for an increasingly large percentage of browser users. Why? H.264 is proprietary, comes with patent baggage, and Mozilla loves what’s open and hates what’s not.
Microsoft has thrown support behind H.264, as one of the standard’s patent holders. Those patents are near the center of the problem.
Google’s Video Bomb
Google’s support of H.264 as a standard has been, until now, admirable. Google switched YouTube videos from Flash to H.264, and much of the web followed suit, because H.264 video plays nice on mobile devices, while Flash video player does not.
Just when it looked as though H.264 would become the de facto video standard for the web—because it runs on everything but Firefox (and there are workarounds), Google drops a bomb and decides to drop support for H.264 in favor of its own open WebM (formerly V8, a video codec Google purchased a few years ago).
How does Google phrase it?
We are changing Chrome’s HTML5 <video> support to make it consistent with the codecs already supported by the open Chromium project. Specifically, we are supporting the WebM (VP8) and Theora video codecs, and will consider adding support for other high-quality open codecs in the future. 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.
That means H.264 video won’t run in future versions of Google’s Chrome browser because Google prefers open to the proprietary H.264 standard. In other words, they’re pushing their own open WebM standard. That means yet another standard video file format to deal with. It’s a mess already. It’s worse with another.
What Could Happen To Web Video?
In a short time we’ll see this. Web video that runs on Safari and Internet Explorer won’t run on Firefox or Chrome. Video that runs on Firefox and Chrome may not run on Safari or Internet Explorer. Web video that runs on iPhone and Windows Phone 7 and BlackBerry may not run on Android-based devices. See the problem?
I have a number of questions that are not easily answered. Aside from the official, stated reasons, why is Google doing this? Will Google remove support for Chrome’s proprietary Flash Player plugin? After all, it’s not open. Will Google remove support for H.264 in Android devices? Will Google switch (again) from H.264 in YouTube videos in favor of WebM? What happens to all the web video sites that have recently switched from Flash to H.264?
Who Can Fix This Mess?
Maybe Google thinks that dropping support of H.264 video can persuade the H.264 patent holders to release the standard as open. Doing so would solve a number of major problems. Maybe Google wants everyone to adopt their open WebM standard instead. The open vs. proprietary web video standards problem goes away if Microsoft and Apple adopt WebM and incorporate it into future browser versions.
Also near the heart of this mess is a lot of money. H.264 holders can extract many millions of dollars from those who use their video compression software.
It would not surprise me if the organization that manages the patents around H.264 sue Google (and Ogg, also supported by Google and Firefox) for patent infringement. Some pundits have indicated that both WebM and Ogg may have infringed upon many of the patents which make up the H.264 standard.
What a mess. Regardless of what takes place long term, in the interim, web video just got worse.