Saturday, January 22, 2011

Google's war on semi-open standards

Google stirred up a controversy this week with its decision dumping H.264 video codec support from its Chrome browser in favor of Flash and its own WebM (VP8).

This clearly is good for Adobe’s Flash, and bad for efforts to build a Flash-free HTML5 Internet that was (until this week) a joint effort of Microsoft, Apple and Google.

The claim that Google is motivated by openness is quite hollow. While technically a Windows browser doesn’t need Google’s help to distribute a free Flash player, Google has been very pro-Flash in its efforts to help Android overtake the iPhone.

Also, even though royalty bearing, H.264 is an open industry standard, whereas Flash and VP8 are not. Flash has only one proprietary implementation.

Still, some speculate that argument one reason is the H.264 business model, specifically that Google doesn’t like the H.264 royalties charged by MPEG LA. Here is what Google’s revised justification said Friday:

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). However, as stated above, there will not be agreement to make it the baseline in the HTML video standard due to its licensing requirements. 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 idea that Google’s latest push will cause VP8 to pass H.264 is fanciful at best: it will take more than support from the #3 browser to cause the rest of the industry to shift from H.264. If anything, Google’s efforts fragment and thus undercut any efforts to establish an open alternative to Flash.

One theory is that Google wants to ditch H.264 support from YouTube (which, if true, would send iPhone users away from YouTube — good for Android, bad for YouTube.) The theory that Google hates H.264 royalties doesn’t hold water according to an analysis by Ed Bott of ZDNet, because even the worst case cost is not material for a $29 billion/year company.

Clearly there is more to this strategy than meets the eye. A company that aspires to be the (unregulated) benevolent dictator of the Internet would be more transparent about its motivations — perhaps something the next CEO will be better at.

But for now, the only good explanation I’ve found is at the comic strip “Joy of Tech,” which argues that it’s part of a cynical Machiavellian strategy by the “do no evil” crowd to retaliate against Apple and generate controversy.

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