Google I/O Google believes online video should be delivered with the HTML5 video tag and open source WebM media format. And yet it just introduced a new movie-rental service that uses Adobe Flash and the royalty-encumbered H.264 codec.
It's a contradiction that makes perfect sense. If you're Google.
At its annual developer conference in San Francisco, Google unveiled a new movie-rental service for the Android Market. The service is already available from the web-based version of the Market, and it will soon be rolled out to the Market applications running on certain Android devices. When you rent via the service, you can view movies not only on Android handsets and tablets, but also on PCs and notebooks through a web browser.
When announcing the service on Tuesday, the company did not say how videos were encoded and delivered. But when asked about it on Wednesday, the company told us the service would deliver video to PCs using Flash. It's still unclear how videos are delivered to Android devices, but Flash uses the H.264 codec, and Google indicated that all videos were encoded with H.264 and only H.264. Presumably, it uses Flash across the board for DRM reasons.
On one level, the move is hardly surprising. Just before the Android Market announcement, Google expanded movie rentals on YouTube, and YouTube is based on Flash. The Android Market rentals make use of the YouTube player on PCs, Google told us.
But at the same time, the new rental service highlights Google's ongoing web video schizophrenia. Google has made it clear that despite its belief that WebM and HTML5 are the future, it still needs Flash for YouTube. HTML5, Google said in blog post last year, is limited when you need DRM, full-screen video, and camera or microphone access.
"YouTube doesn't own the videos that you watch - they're owned by their respective creators, who control how those videos are distributed through YouTube," the company said, when discussing DRM. "For YouTube Rentals, video owners require us to use secure streaming technology, such as the Flash Platform's RTMPE protocol, to ensure their videos are not redistributed."
The Android rentals require much of the same stuff. Plus, it just makes sense to use the same formats for both the Android market and YouTube.
The rub is that Google is slowing the progress of HTML5 video and its own open codec. Rather than put all its weight behind HTML5 and WebM, the company is happy to simply give the pair a gentle push from time to time. When Google launched WebM in May of last year, it promptly rolled the format into Chrome, but it retained H.264 support as well. Earlier this year, Google said it had decided to remove H.264 support, but this has yet to actually happen.
On YouTube, though Flash still the dominant force, Google is now encoding all videos in WebM for HTML5 viewing. But as long as YouTube – and sister Google services such as Android Market – continue to use Flash, you have to wonder how WebM and HTML5 will ever get over the proverbial hump.
The added problem is that although Apple and Microsoft have embraced the HTML5 video tag, they refuse to adopt WebM in their browsers. Microsoft says the codec may be vulnerable to legal attack, and apparently Apple feels the same way. With both these big names holding out against WebM, it's unlikely that Google, Mozilla, and Opera can turn the tide on their own.
The swing vote may be Microsoft's. Despite its concerns over WebM's legal position, it has collaborated with Google to build software that lets users add support to Windows and IE on their own.
Or perhaps the swing vote lies with Google. Hopefully, one day, the company will fully embrace its own message. ®