In a move to drive the adoption of programmatically accessible video, Google has deprecated the H.264 video codec from its Chrome browser. Apple previously announced that it would not support Adobe Flash on the iPhone, the most popular video codec on the Internet today for transporting H.264 video. Google’s latest move, coupled with its rich developer community, is likely to drive the adoption of the WebM video format, which is an open-source replacement to H.264.
“H.264 is a better codec, but there are patent and licensing fees,” says Peter Lubbers, director/Documentation and Training at Kaazing, which builds tools for accelerating HTML5 applications. “Owing to recent improvements, the WebM format may finally be a suitable replacement for H.264 for low-end video, which comprises 90 percent of the Web video today."
Both Apple and Google want to drive adoption of native HTML5 native applications, which would give application developers richer hooks into the ways the video is processed and presented on phones, PCs and TVs using a pure browser interface. The goal is to create native Web applications that have the same fluidity as desktop applications.
The Great HTML5 Video Debate
During the development of the HTML5 standards within the W3C, there was a desire to incorporate native video support into the browser. At the time, H.264 and the Ogg video codecs were the main contenders. The Ogg codec consists of Theora Video and Vorbis audio codecs. “Vorbis audio is really good, and Theora is not so good,” notes Lubbers. “At that time, it was easy to say H.264 was far superior.”
As the debate raged on, some browser developers like Mozilla Firefox would not pay for it, and others said Ogg was not high-quality enough. Some of these same people derive licensing revenue from H.264, including Apple and Microsoft. The W3C finally dropped the requirement to run video natively in the browser from the spec.
In the meantime, On2, which created the Theora codec, continued working on an improvement called VP8. Google bought On2 and announced plans to support an open-source video stack called WebM. The format includes the Vorbis and VP8 files bundled in a Matroska container format.
The one current limitation with Ogg is that it does not natively support adaptive-streaming techniques that can adjust the playback settings to compensate for changing network conditions. This could be added, but there is no spec for that.
Opening The Door For WebM
“I wish WebM had been around when they had this debate about H.264-versus-Ogg video,” says Lubbers. “The original idea was that there would be a single codec for HTML5. At a certain point, the W3C decided to drop the requirement for a standard codec from the H.264 spec.”
At a practical level, this move is likely to have no short-term impact on users because the Flash plug-in and other H.264 codecs are widely available. But with Google’s substantial developer community and clout, a focus on WebM also may help to drive an open common video format freely available across browsers.
– George Lawton