Google flexes its Chrome browser muscles, removes support for H.264 video – but what about Adobe Flash?

Google has announced that it will remove support for the H.264 video codec in its Chrome browser:

…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.

The reason given is that Google wishes to support open standards. That sounds good for open standards, but not so good for users who simply want a video to play.

Google’s position contrasts that of Microsoft with IE9:

In its HTML5 support, IE9 will support playback of H.264 video as well as VP8 video when the user has installed a VP8 codec on Windows

Still, at least IE9 will play VP8 if the codec is installed, so that makes VP8 look a better option for content providers – which is the outcome Google is hoping for.

I have mixed feelings about this approach, because while it is good for open standards it is bad for compatibility. I am also not sure that it is consistent. Google announced in June that it is integrating Adobe Flash support into the browser; yet Flash is not an open standard.

That also suggests that H.264 video will still play in Chrome, provided it is in a Flash wrapper.

Maybe Google is learning from Apple how to deprecate technologies by removing support. Apple refuses to allow Java or Flash on iOS, and has stopped doing its own build of Java for OS X. Apple has also stated that these “optional” components may not be used in apps that are deployed in the Mac App Store, thus making a disincentive for developers considering those runtimes.

Apple has not squashed Flash though; and Google may find it equally hard to squash H.264, which is widely supported throughout the industry, has the best tools, and for which hardware is optimised. Apple supports H.264 but is unlikely to support WebM or Theora any time soon. Here’s what Apple CEO Steve Jobs said in April 2010:

To achieve long battery life when playing video, mobile devices must decode the video in hardware; decoding it in software uses too much power. Many of the chips used in modern mobile devices contain a decoder called H.264 – an industry standard that is used in every Blu-ray DVD player and has been adopted by Apple, Google (YouTube), Vimeo, Netflix and many other companies.

Although Flash has recently added support for H.264, the video on almost all Flash websites currently requires an older generation decoder that is not implemented in mobile chips and must be run in software. The difference is striking: on an iPhone, for example, H.264 videos play for up to 10 hours, while videos decoded in software play for less than 5 hours before the battery is fully drained.

When websites re-encode their videos using H.264, they can offer them without using Flash at all. They play perfectly in browsers like Apple’s Safari and Google’s Chrome without any plugins whatsoever, and look great on iPhones, iPods and iPads.

It seems Jobs spoke too soon when he said H.264 would play perfectly in Chrome.

Post updated to add Apple quote

One thought on “Google flexes its Chrome browser muscles, removes support for H.264 video – but what about Adobe Flash?”

  1. Firefox was never going to support H.264 encoded video via the video tag. I imagine that’s part of the context for Google’s decision – native H.264 was never going to be ubiquitous. Also, I don’t see how the change hurts users who aren’t involved in corporate platform battles as H.264 encoded video will play in Chrome via Flash. So building in Flash means H.264 is always available if the user wants it.

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