Chrome H.264 video decision a vaccination against license trap

Google promotes open, but also gets out of MPEG LA royalty trap

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Yesterday's announcement that Google would be dropping built-in support for the H.264 video codec in the HTML5 <video> tag caused quite a stir in the open source and browser sectors, with many people lining up to either praise Google or deride them for the decision.

The derision basically goes like this: H.264, which is already supported in Internet Explorer and Safari, is a widely used codec for HTML5 video playback, while WebM and Theora are not. Why would Google drop support for a perfectly good, widely deployed, and essentially free codec in favor of video support that is perfectly good and not as widely deployed, just to foster more openness on the Web? And why is it that such an open friendly move is being implemented in a browser that will still continue to support Adobe Flash--which is decidedly not open--for video playback?

For the latter question, I will defer to Simon Phipps, who answers the calls of Chrome hypocrisy head on with a well-reasoned argument that's rooted in real-world facts, not knee-jerk reactions.

To see a real knee-jerk reaction, check out Adrian Kingsley-Hughes' screed on the Chrome H.264 decision, in which he declares "Google prepares to ruin Chrome browser."

Kingsley-Hughes takes on the assertion by Google that they are doing this because H.264 is not a free codec, while WebM and Theora are freely licensed. First, he challenges the notion that H.264 is not free. After all, Kingsley-Hughes writes, "Because the MPEG-LA made H.264 effectively free to use to those who freely distribute AVC/H.264 video until 2016--which is near enough forever in tech terms."

He's kidding, right?

Kingsley-Hughes does acknowledge that "free" isn't quite the blanket term when it comes to H.264, providing a pull-quote from Peter Csathy of Sorenson Media:

"But, you say, MPEG LA recently announced that it will no longer charge royalties for the use of H.264. Yes, it's true--MPEG LA recently bowed to mounting pressure from, and press surrounding, WebM and announced something that kind of sounds that way. But, I caution you to read the not-too-fine print. H.264 is royalty-free only in one limited case--for Internet video that is delivered free to end users. Read again: for (1) Internet delivery that is (2) delivered free to end users. In the words of MPEG LA's own press release, 'Products and services other than [those] continue to be royalty-bearing.'"

My favorite bit is when Kingsley-Hughes adds his own two cents to Csathy's explanation: "So yes, H.264 is not truly 'free' in broad terms, but for most web users, it's good enough."

And that would be all fine and dandy except for one, teeny, tiny problem. Can you guess what it is, because Kingsley-Hughes certainly couldn't.

Google is not an end user.

And, because of that one little fact that seems to have escaped Kingsley-Hughes and anyone else who thinks that shifting to an open codec was a stupid, idealistic PR stunt, all the arguments about H.264 being free go right out the window.

The fact is, H.264 can be expensive for software and hardware developers to license if it doesn't fall into this narrow line of use. MPEG LA, the keeper of the H.264 codec, told Mozilla to cough up $5 million to license H.264 in the Firefox browser--which is why there's no H.264 support in Firefox.

And even in the narrow-case royalty-free instances, H.264 is not going to be a bargain. When MPEG LA announced the deal a little less than a year ago, then-Mozilla chief John Lilly tweeted "And regarding that MPEG-LA announce: it's good they did it, but they sort of had to. But it's like 5 more years of free to lock you in 4ever."

Keeping H.264 "free" until 2016 is all well and good for MPEG LA, since it promotes the wider deployment of the codec as (they hope) a de facto standard, while collecting licensing fees from all the rest of the H.264 users.

The move away from H.264 is, without a doubt, a pain for end users, particularly those who would prefer not to use Flash for video playback. It's a pain for hardware makers who will now have to choose between H.264, WebM, or Flash to get video playback in their devices. I certainly acknowledge that, and don't want to trivialize that pain. But Google was looking down the road at millions of dollars in licensing fees and the possibility of never getting away from H.264, if it gets more widely deployed.

If Google did not make this break now, before the launch of ChromeOS when Chrome will get even more attention, they would never make the break. To do so later would have effectively killed Chrome and ChromeOS.

So while I understand the aggravation that users are going through, I put Google's decision in the same context as I did when my daughters were vaccinated: yes, there's pain now, but it will prevent a lot of suffering later.

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