The truth about Google and H.264

 If you leave this post remembering only one thing, let it be this: Making something Open Source does not automatically make it better, it just makes it Open Source. How's that for flamebait?

Unless you have been living in a box buried underground lately, you have probably noticed the shitstorm surrounding Googles decision to drop support for the H.264 codec in it's Chrome web-browser. Of course, as a web-developer I do indeed have some thoughts on why this happened and whether it's a smart move. However, before sharing from my goldmine of biased opinion we'll need to get the REAL facts straight, so you can judge for yourself.

Open vs. Free
H.264 is a codec constructed from a bunch of patented technologies and it's developed by the «Video Coding Experts Group» and the «MPEG Group». H.264 is a video standard (ISO/IEC 14496-10) handled by the «International Organization for Standardization». H.264 is an open standard, however it is not a free standard. All the patents included in H.264 are handled by MPEG-LA, not to be confused with the MPEG Group. Microsoft and Apple are some of the minor patent holders of H.264. H.264 is free to use for non-commercial usage, for end users for it's lifetime. For commercial usage (e.g. iTunes Store) and for usage in decoders (e.g. in browsers) one will have to pay a license fee capped at $6.5M. H.264 sports a bunch of hardware decoders, from iOS devices to Televisions and DVD/BlueRay players. To create H.264 files you can use everything from Apple QuickTime to FFMPEG. H.264 is supported by Apple Safari, Internet Explorer 9 and Google Chrome via the Mpeg4 container.

VP8, the codec within the WebM container, was developed as a proprietary product by a company called On2 Technologies. In 2010 On2 Technologies was acquired by Google, whom continued to release the patents within VP8 under a Creative Commons License. VP8 is free to use and free to implement. As of today there are slim to none hardware support for VP8 decoding. To decode/encode VP8 today you'll most likely use Google own software based «libvpx» library or the FFMPEG(ffvp8) implementation. VP8 is today supported by Opera and Firefox 4 via the WebM container.

The thing to notice here is that H.264 is indeed an open standard, developed by an independent companies and approved as a standard by ISO, but it's not free to implement. VP8 was developed as a proprietary product by one company, later released into the public domain as Open Source. VP8 is free to implement.

What does it all mean?
In my opinion Googles move has nothing to do with being open, it might have something to do with being free however. For companies like Mozilla, which develops a truly Open Source product it totally makes sense to not implement a video codec for which you have to pay patent royalties. Note that Mozilla does not support MP3 either, which also contains commercial patents. It's not that Mozilla can't pay the license fees, it is more the fact that you cannot freely distribute as Open Source a product which implements a patent encumbered video decoder. Mozilla (Firefox) has never had support for H.264, which is a decision I completely support on the basis of their completely open approach in other areas of the implementation as well.
Google on the other hand made the rather strange decision to remove it's already existing support for a widely used codec in a browser littered with other patented technologies. Under the flag of being "open". It's this "being open" part which rubs me the wrong way. Google Chrome is NOT an open browser in the same sense as Firefox is, it implements mp3 and it's own embedded FlashPlayer to mention a few things. As far as I can see, the only logical explanation for Googles move is that this is a business decision. They don't want to pay for a license partly under the control of Apple and Microsoft and would rather control their own codec, namely VP8, which is under Googles control, even if it's Open Source. VP8 has never been through any independent standards organization like H.264 has, it was developed as a proprietary product, in sharp contrast to the independent development of H.264 which was a joint operation shared by many companies. Codec developers also claim the superiority in quality of H.264 over VP8. It's estimated that about 60-70% of all web video is encoded in H.264 already, a large part of that is YouTube owned by Google. The reason you can watch video for hours on your Android. Microsoft or iOS device is the H.264 hardware encoder which sits inside of it. Despite all of this Google chooses to exclude H.264 from it's web-browser.. to be open.. yea right!

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