Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Open platforms and semi-open standards

For unexplained strategic reasons, last month Google said it didn’t want the semi-open H.264 video codec supported in its Chrome browser, but was favoring its semi-open WebM codec instead. This meant that the most popular HTML5 video format would not be available for Chrome users.

Not available, that is, until the intervention of an unlikely savior. Today Microsoft announced that it is supporting H.264 on the three main Windows browsers: its own IE9, and via plugins for Chrome and Firefox. The latter two make use of the extensible browser platforms that their respective open source sponsor created to encourage third party support (albeit not originally intended to help Microsoft.).

(Apple remains firmly committed to H.264 and HTML5 on both Mac OS and iPhone OS, as part of its pointed rejection of Adobe’s Flash.)

As a Mac guy, I rarely agree with Microsoft on standards battles, but I think they’re dead right on several issues.

Here are a few excerpts:

A Web without video would be a dull Web and consumers, developers and businesses want video on the Web to just work. As an industry we know this and have, until recently, been on a path to make this a reality with HTML5 by integrating video into Web pages more natively using H.264.

We’ve been clear from the first public demonstration of IE9 that the community deserves a reliable platform for delivering video as part of the modern Web.

  • IE9 will play HTML5 video in the H.264 format. Why H.264? It is a high-quality and widely-used video format that serves the Web very well today. We describe many of those reasons in blog posts here, here, and here.
  • Any browser running on Windows can play H.264 video via the built-in Windows APIs that support the format. Our point of view here is that Windows customers should be able to play mainstream video on the Web. …
Although predictably snarky (as it is about all things Microsoft), The Register noted the significance of Google’s action and Microsoft’s response:
H.264 is the mostly widely used video-playback codec on the web, but Google said in January that it was removing support for H.264 from future versions of Chrome.

Google said its resources would now be directed towards "completely open codec technologies," as the giant's goal is to enable "open innovation" on the internet. H.264 was built by Apple, Microsoft, and others, and is licensed by MPEG LA.

Future versions of Chrome will support only the royalty-free WebM codec that was owned and open sourced by Google last year, and the Ogg Theora codec.
As someone who’s been studying standards wars for more than 15 years, I think the Microsoft people are exactly right. The correct answer for web standards is choice and competition — just as we have choice and competition for cars, TVs, laptops, tablets and smartphones.

Accessing web pages is not like playing back 8-track tapes: it’s easy for a modern computer (and perhaps even a modern tablet or phone) to support multiple browsers.

I have four browsers installed on my MacBook Pro: Safari, Camino, Firefox and Chrome. Mainly I use them because I want to group a different set of pages for different windows, but sometimes I find that printing or browsing works better on one that the other.

Whatever its motives, Google attacking H.264 by banning it from its browser platform is the same idea as Microsoft trying to kill Java by discouraging its availability on Windows. It’s up to vendors to make their case to customers — both content providers and content consumers. Eventually the formats will shake out, but competition will force the codec providers to offer the best price and performance they can.

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