After dropping H.264, Google admits it's more popular than WebM

H.264 is more popular than the WebM video codec, but said restrictive licensing will ultimately doom H.264.

Amid controversy over Google's decision to strip H.264 support from its Chrome browser, a Google official has acknowledged H.264 is more popular than the WebM video codec, but said restrictive licensing will ultimately doom H.264.

Microsoft and Google traded barbs over HTML5 video standards, with Microsoft supporting H.264 in Internet Explorer 9, while Mozilla, Opera, Adobe and Google push the new WebM. A long standards battle could result, and Google admits it has some work to do.

BACKSTORY: The 10 bloodiest battles Microsoft and Google fought in 2010

"We acknowledge that H.264 has broader support in the publisher, developer, and hardware community today (though support across the ecosystem for WebM is growing rapidly)," Google Product Manager Mike Jazayeri wrote Friday in the Chromium blog.

However, Jazayeri predicted that licensing fees would stifle innovation and lead to H.264's downfall. Although H.264 has greater support today, "There will not be agreement to make it the baseline in the HTML video standard due to its licensing requirements," Jazayeri writes. "To use and distribute H.264, browser and OS vendors, hardware manufacturers, and publishers who charge for content must pay significant royalties — with no guarantee the fees won't increase in the future. To companies like Google, the license fees may not be material, but to the next great video startup and those in emerging markets these fees stifle innovation."

The H.264 license agreement can be found at the Web site of MPEG LA, which administers patent-licensing programs. According to the site, H.264 patent holders include Apple, Cisco, HP, LG, Microsoft, Polycom, Sony, Toshiba and many other companies.

Although Google has said it will remove H.264 support from Chrome, Jazayeri said few users will notice a difference, at least for now.

"H.264 plays an important role in video and the vast majority of the H.264 videos on the web today are viewed in plug-ins such as Flash and Silverlight," he writes. "These plug-ins are and will continue to be supported in Chrome. Our announcement was only related to the video tag, which is part of the emerging HTML platform. While the HTML video platform offers great promise, few sites use it today and therefore few users will be immediately impacted by this change."

Google's move away from H.264 has fueled some concerns about the company holding too much sway over the future of Web video, a concern Jazayeri addresses by answering the question, "Isn't this just an effort by Google to control the Web video format?" Jazayeri notes that "the majority of organizations and individuals contributing to WebM won't be affiliated with Google or any single entity," and that third-party developers "have already created high-quality alternative (yet compatible) implementations of WebM."

Jazayeri acknowledges the current situation isn't perfect, given that publishers have to create multiple copies of videos to satisfy the needs of different browsers. "Bottom line, we are at an impasse in the evolution of HTML video," he writes. "Having no baseline codec in the HTML specification is far from ideal."

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Jon Brodkin

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