Google plugins force-feed open codec to IE and Safari

Remakes web in own image


Google will soon release plug-ins for both Internet Explorer and Safari that play nicely with WebM, the open source and royalty-free video codec that Apple and Microsoft aren't inclined to adopt on their own.

The move comes two days after Google announced that its Chrome browser would no longer support H.264, the royalty-encumbered video codec favored by Apple and Microsoft.

When Google yanked H.264 from Chrome, it was hit with criticism from both sides of the HTML5 video wars, and on Friday, Google product manager Mike Jazayeri felt the need to – in his words – "answer some of the questions raised" by the ongoing online debate. For the most, his post answered questions we already had answers to. But in an aside, at the bottom of the post, he announced those WebM plug-ins for IE and Safari.

It's a tactic Google has used before. The company currently offers a plug-in for Internet Explorer – Google Chrome Frame – that equips older versions of IE with the rendering and Javascript engines at the heart of Chrome. Olders versions of IE can't handle the latest standards-based web applications, so Google is providing a means of turning those Microsoft browsers into Google browsers.

In May, Google open sourced the WebM codec as a royalty-free alternative to H.264 for HTML5 video. Mozilla and Opera backed the codec from the beginning, and support was soon available from Firefox and Opera. But Apple and Microsoft stuck with H.264 – they're part of the patent pool that licenses the technology – and even Google kept one foot in the H.264 camp, offering both H.264 and WebM support with Chrome.

That changed this week, when Google announced that future versions of Chrome would only support WebM and Ogg Theora, the open source codec that pre-dates WebM. Predictably, Microsoft came out against the decision, backing H.264, which has become a de facto web standard. But less than predictably, it was quite clever about it. Tim Sneath, senior director of Windows and web evangelism at Microsoft, uploaded a blog post entitled "An Open Letter from the President of the United States of Google".

"We are supporting the Esperanto and Klingon languages, and will consider adding support for other high-quality constructed languages in the future," the post read. "Though English plays an important role in speech today, as our goal is to enable open innovation, its further use as a form of communication in this country will be prohibited and our resources directed towards languages that are untainted by real-world usage."

But Google also received criticism from those who, unlike Microsoft, prefer a video codec without licensing fees. Spurred on by a tweet from überblogger and Apple fanboi king John Gruber, many accused Mountain View of hypocrisy. Google axed H.264 from Chrome in the name of "openness", they pointed out, and yet it bundles the proprietary Flash plug-in with the browser.

"Dropping H.264 but keeping Flash makes them 'utter hypocrites'," tweeted Don MacAskill, CEO of popular photo- and video-sharing site SmugMug. "I'm left with two choices: Gulp and double my costs on an unknown tech, or return to Flash as primary solution. Ugh. Thanks, Google."

With today's blog post, Mike Jazayeri did address part of MacAskill's complaint. "Some have expressed concern that our announcement will force publishers and developers to maintain multiple copies of their content when they otherwise would not have had to," he said. "Remember, Firefox and Opera have never supported H.264 due to its licensing requirements, they both support WebM and Ogg Theora.

"Therefore, unless publishers and developers using the HTML video tag don’t plan to support the large portion of the desktop and mobile web that use these browsers, they will have to support a format other than H.264 anyway (which is why we are working to establish a baseline codec for HTML video)."

That would be WebM. "It is clear that there will not be agreement to specify H.264 as the baseline codec in the HTML video standard due to its licensing requirements. Furthermore, we genuinely believe that core web technologies need to be open and community developed to enable the same great innovation that has brought the web to where it is today. These facts led us to join the efforts of the web community and invest in an open alternative, WebM."

But this we've heard before. Jazayeri didn't address claims of web video hypocrisy. He mentioned Flash only to say that the vast majority of the web's H.264 videos are Flash and Silverlight videos and that these H.264-happy plug-ins are still supported by Chrome. He didn't say bundled.

But in the past, Google has made it quite clear that it needs Flash because YouTube needs Flash. YouTube can't rely exclusively on HTML5 until the standard is beefed up with extra tools. What's more, Flash is an advertising tech.

Eventually, Google prefers a web - including YouTube - that handles all video with HTML and an open codec. That best suits the company's bottom line, which rises as general use of the rises, and ultimately, use rises with free and open standards. But in the short term, its bottom line would suffer if - in an effort to hasten the march towards this ideal world - YouTube suddenly went Flash-free.

So, on one front, Google will push WebM. It will even introduce WebM plug-ins for IE and Safari - a move that carries its own, well, irony. But on another front, it will push to keep Flash alive.

That's not hypocrisy. That's a very large public company acting in its own self-interest. ®


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