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Google has taken a neutral approach to HTML5 video since it was first suggested, but now it seems like it has chosen a side — its own. It has decided to remove the patent-encumbered H.264 codec from the Google Chrome browser, which now only supports its in-house developed WebM format.
The most commonly used video codec at the moment is Apple’s H.264 which is used with most Flash-based videos on the web including Google’s own YouTube. However, HTML5 video is different to Flash and due to the fact that the HTML5 spec is still a draft, Flash remains the dominant method of delivering video on the web.
YouTube does have a couple of HTML5 videos on its site, all of which are using Google’s new WebM technology which has the VP8 codec at its core. In other words, any HTML5 video you’ve seen over the past year or so would have likely been using WebM or possibly the older Theora. So removing H.264 support won’t have a massive impact.
H.264 was developed by Apple and the Joint Video Team in 2003 in order to compress high quality video which can be streamed over the internet. While H.264 has been the de facto standard for many years thanks to Flash, there has been a push for an open codec to be used as the standard especially since HTML5 now includes the video element.
Ogg Theora, the codec previously championed by open standards advocates was derived from the open sourced VP3 codec developed by On2 Technologies.
The debate rages on about which codec is more efficient but there is one fundamental difference; open source. Since Google got hold of the VP8 codec, it has opened it up for anyone to use and improve on. This means free and open source browsers like Firefox need not worry about corporate bullying or having to pay royalties.
From what I’ve read, the VP8 source code is sloppy and the codec could quite possibly be on par or even inferior to H.264, in spite of claims that it far outperforms its competitor. The difference is that VP8 can be improved on by anyone with the skills, while H.264 is at the mercy of the team hired to develop it.
I’ll go out on a limb and say that in five years with corporate assistance from Google, WebM and VP8 will have been raised to a level that outstrips anything else on the market.
That’s the power of open development.