Thursday, January 13, 2011

The H.264 WebM Divide

On January 11, 2011 Google announced that they would be dropping H.264 support from Chrome in favor of their own WebM format. Their claimed reason was that this move would better back their proposed royalty free video future. There have been many accusations that this is not their entire reasoning. To understand this complex topic let’s go back a while.
The H.264 video standard was completed in 2003. Since then it has been adopted for use in Blu-Ray discs, Youtube videos, Flash video, broadcast television, and many other applications. It’s such a popular standard mostly because it’s well documented and very effective at compressing video. Because of it’s popularity many devices have been made with specialized chips that can only decode H.264 video. That has created a degree of lock-in. Since our phones utilize these chips we can’t send them another video format and expect them to play it as well or at all.
So if H.264 is used by almost everything then why resist it? Patents. The h.264 standard is based on a collection of patents pooled together by MPEG LA. MPEG LA consists of:
France Télécom
Sedna Patent
Victor Company
So you can see there is a lot of big names working behind h.264, and if they collectively wanted to they could ask everyone who’s using the standard to encode/decode video for licensing fees on their patent. So far they’ve only asked manufacturers who make products that can decode H.264 and those selling video in the format. MPEG LA has promised never ask for fees from end users and free providers but nothing actually stops them from doing so.
Since decoding software is included in what they’re asking licensing fees from, browsers that can play back H.264 are required to pay up. Firefox and Opera would be among those so they’ve decided only to support the Ogg/Theora and now the WebM standard. Microsoft and Apple are members of MPEG LA and as such are exempt from fees. Google has, until recently been paying the fees but has joined up with Firefox and Opera by dropping H.264 support.
The WebM format was not created by Google. In fact they bought video software company, On2, and immediately released the format as patent free and open source. There has been much criticism of the format. If Google wants everyone to support their format then they’ve got quite the uphill battle.

I wrote this for work but since nobody there will actually end up reading it I thought I should put it up here... where nobody will end up reading it.