Google's "Principles"

by Thomas Brady


Really, Google? Really?

So, if you didn’t already hear, Google is dropping support for H.264 in its Chrome browser. If you know what H.264 is, skip to the next paragraph. H.264 is a way to digitize video that works really well on the web and on mobile devices. It’s pretty much the de facto standard at the moment, as it’s supported on almost anything with a processor these days, including traditional computers, smartphones, tablets, and almost any kind of box you hook up to almost any kind of screen (AppleTV/Roku/etc.). It’s what most video services like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Video on Demand, etc. use. It’s also what HTML5 was beginning to standardize on.

What do they propose we use instead? Their own WebM format or Ogg Theora (don’t worry if you don’t know what those are. No one really does. They’re pretty irrelevant). These formats, they say, “are developed and licensed based on open web principles.”

Tim Sneath, of Microsoft, was so inspired by this that he proposed MS abandon the English language (via Electronista) in favor of Esperanto or Klingon - languages more suited to “open innovations.” A modest proposal, if you ask me. (1)

John Gruber has a series of questions, all good ones:

  1. In addition to supporting H.264, Chrome currently bundles an embedded version of Adobe’s closed source and proprietary Flash Player plugin. If H.264 support is being removed to “enable open innovation”, will Flash Player support be dropped as well? If not, why?
  2. Android currently supports H.264. Will this support be removed from Android? If not, why not?
  3. YouTube uses H.264 to encode video. Presumably, YouTube will be re-encoding its entire library using WebM. When this happens, will YouTube’s support for H.264 be dropped, to “enable open innovation”? If not, why not?
  4. Do you expect companies like Netflix, Amazon, Vimeo, Major League Baseball, and anyone else who currently streams H.264 to dual-encode all of their video using WebM? If not, how will Chrome users watch this content other than by resorting to Flash Player’s support for H.264 playback?
  5. Who is happy about this?

The Macalope answered that last one, simply, “Adobe.”

I can’t imagine this will work. Chrome is a pretty popular browser - I use it exclusively at the moment, but I don’t think it’s nearly popular enough to drive the industry away from H.264. If Google plans to drop support in Android as well, though, then they’d be getting somewhere. 

But maybe they don’t want it to work, at least not as a promotion of WebM and/or Theora, but do want it to work as a monkey-wrench thrown into the H.264 works. Driving the industry away from H.264 means driving them back toward Flash as the only video delivery platform that would work on more than a couple platforms, which means driving them back to Flash-enabled Android devices and away from their H.264-only iOS devices. So Adobe and Google defend their competitive edge, at the cost of openness, industry standards, development costs, user experience, and who knows what else.

How’s that for “open web principles?”