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Google and H.264 - Far From Hypocritical?

Note: This article was originally published at Planet PHP on 14 January 2011.
Planet PHP

Simon Phipps, on the Google dropping H.264 from Chrome debacle:

But all these points are also true of Adobe Flash. So why not drop that too? Is it not hyprocritical to keep it? If you're an absolutist, probably yes. But there's a calculation going on here about steering the web into the level plains of truly open standards. H.264 support in the tag is not the same as Flash support.

Simon (whom I greatly respect) makes some great points in his essay-primarily outlining the fact that an honest analysis1 of what has happened needs to take a lot of complex and interrelated events into account.

I do think, however, that his conclusion is incorrect in this particular instance. Google is not a disinterested party in the video format war; it controls the WebM codecAde facto, because it originates the format and because several of the big-name members of the WebM consortium derive large portions of their income from it2. It also controls YouTube, which is arguably the largest repository of videos on the Web.

Flash seems more like a red herring to me-the real question is, where are the disclosures? This action and the naAve reasoning that Google has presented gives no consideration to what a company whose motto is aodo no evila apparently stands to gain from this move, which could be something as simple as not wanting to worry about having to pay for royalties five or ten years down the road3.

What worries me and what I'd think should have worried Simon is the fact that this move reduces customer choice, which goes against the very principles of openness that Google claims to support. Given the current situation, under which they can continue to use H.264 without any significant cost, the appropriate choice would be to leave the codec in and let the market decide. If the open-source model yields a better result in the long run, as I believe it does, then there is nothing to fear.

  1. Something that requires more than 140 characters, that is. a
  2. See the latest Mozilla Foundation report, for example. a
  3. Should the royalty scheme of H.264 ever change in a way that affects Google and YouTube, both would thus be in the clear, and everybody else would conceivably be covered by Flash or its successors. a