Google angling for free H.264 plugin
I was likely wrong on Monday when I said that Google dropping H.264 video compression support in their Chrome browser was due to untenable hubris. I’m beginning to think that Google was being smart and that this is just a quick way to save money. No it’s not about saving storage costs on YouTube which is a silly notion to begin with since two formats cost more to store than one and there’s no way Google could drop the H.264 format on YouTube. The entire WebM/VP8 open standard video compression strategy was just a strategic bluff to secure favorable H.264 licensing costs for Chrome and YouTube streaming.
I had been wondering all Tuesday how Google was going to block an H.264 Chrome plugin and how feeble their VP8 stance was when they didn’t even have the guts to yank their near exclusive usage of H.264 on YouTube and yank H.264 support on the Android operating system. After reading a Facebook comment (from someone who shall remain nameless at this point) that filled in the final piece of the puzzle, I realized I was being silly. Why would Google turn down a free H.264 plugin that they would have had to pay $6.5 million per year for?
Mozilla made the same stink a year ago about the annual H.264 license fee and protested by dropping H.264 from Firefox. The result was that Microsoft filled in with an H.264 plugin and we certainly never heard any complaints from Mozilla much less about blocking it. If Mozilla was serious about the purity of Firefox being infected with patented technology, they could have blocked Microsoft’s H.264 gift but they didn’t and neither will Google. Both Mozilla and Google will be able to claim moral superiority by their “open” stance but at the end of the day they’re just happy to get patent-encumbered H.264 software for free.
But this goes much deeper than the $6.5 million annual license for Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox. Patent liabilities are serious business and Microsoft almost suffered a multi-billion dollar lawsuit from Alcatel-Lucent were it not for a reversal last year. This was in spite of the fact that Microsoft had licensed the MP3 audio compression technology from Fraunhofer Society, the inventors of MP3. Google which owns the world’s largest free video streaming site YouTube was facing a serious patent bomb from the MPEG-LA patent pool in 2015 when the free licensing terms for free video streaming sites expired.
By creating the new “WebM” open standard which used the VP8 compression technology that Google acquired from ON2 for $106.5 million of Google common stock, it forced the MPEG-LA to promise free streaming licensing terms indefinitely. The fact that VP8 has its own patent uncertainty and that VP8 is obviously inferior to H.264 is irrelevant because its mere existence constitutes a viable bluff. Considering the cost of patent lawsuits, $106.5M is chump change. And since Microsoft already paid for an H.264 license at the operating system level and they’re willing to extend it to third party web browsers like Mozilla Firefox at no charge to Mozilla, Google can recoup an additional $6.5M a year by letting Microsoft create an H.264 plugin for Chrome.
Touché Google, your little head fake had us all fooled on the blogosphere. You managed secure your own financial interests under the guise of open source altruism. Is there any chance I’m wrong about this and Google really is that dumb to try and overturn H.264? I doubt it and so long as Google maintains this toothless posture while fully supporting H.264 on YouTube and Android, I think that’s all the proof we need.
Update – Peter Bright has a great article on Arstechnica explaining how unlikely it would be to overthrow the H.264 video compression standard.
Update 2 – Daring Fireball makes a good point that Chrome will still be able to play H.264 through Adobe Flash player even if it drops native HTML5 support for H.264. All that means is Google will default to Adobe Flash for H.264 playback or they’ll get a plugin from Microsoft and the content world will continue to happily offer their H.264 encoded video in Flash and simply forget about doing H.264 via HTML5. The clear winner will be Adobe and the clear loser will be the HTML5 standard. There’s simply no way content providers will start to dual encode to H.264 and WebM and double their encoding costs, storage costs, and expose themselves to future patent infringement lawsuits.