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Google axes Jobsian codec in name of 'open'

Dubbed 'utter hypocrite' by fanboi king

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Google has announced that its Chrome browser will no longer include support for H.264, the patent-encumbered video codec favored by Apple and Microsoft. Future versions of Chrome will only include support for the open source and royalty-free WebM and Ogg Theora codecs.

This past May, Google itself open sourced the WebM codec as a royalty-free alternative to H.264 for HTML5 video, but Chrome continued to offer support for H.264, which is licensed by a patent pool that includes Apple and Microsoft. Whereas Opera and Mozilla shunned H.264 entirely, Google rode the fence.

But on Tuesday, that changed. "Though H.264 plays an important role in video, as our goal is to enable open innovation, support for the codec will be removed and our resources directed towards completely open codec technologies," Google product manager Mike Jazayeri said in a blog post.

According to Jazayeri, the change will occur "in a couple of months" to give sites that use HTML5 video an opportunity to recode.

Of course, Chrome will continue to include Adobe's Flash player, which uses the H.264 codec all on its own. Tuesday's change affects only HTML5 video. For Don MacAskill, CEO of popular photo- and video-sharing site SmugMug, this undermines Google's claims of openness. "Dropping H.264 but keeping Flash makes them 'utter hypocrites'" he tweeted, echoing the words of überblogger and Apple fanboi king John Gruber.

Then MacAskill tweeted again: "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."

Mozilla doesn't quite see eye-to-eye with Google on Flash, but it did back Mountain View's decision to remove H.264. "It's a great move, and one we at Mozilla are obviously glad to see. It’s been a great first 8 months for WebM," Mozilla vice president of engineering Mike Shaver said in a blog post. "Organizations like Google, Mozilla, Opera and others who really believe in the importance of unencumbered video on the web are putting their products where our mouths are, and the web is going to be stronger and more awesome for it."

The still-gestating HTML5 spec doesn't specify a codec for video, because, well, the major browser vendors couldn't agree on one. Thus, the vendors can choose whatever codec they like. Yes, Apple and Microsoft continue to include H.264 support in their browsers, and they've yet to adopt WebM – though Microsoft has said that Internet Explorer users will have the option of installing WebM on their own.

Though WebM uses a royalty-free license, MPEG-LA – the outfit that licenses H.264 on behalf of companies like Apple and Microsoft – has said that it's "looking into" a patent pool that would challenge its royalty-free-ness. And apparently, Steve Jobs is of similar mind. But Google has told The Reg that it's confident the codec can stand up to legal attack.

Nonetheless, Steve Jobs and his army of fanbois believe they're on the side of open. "If Google is dropping H.264 because their 'goal is to enable open innovation,' why not also drop support for closed plugins like Flash?" John Gruber tweeted in response to Google's announcement. Then, in a blog post, he laid down that bit about Google being "utter hypocrites". Though Jobs backs the H.264 codec, he has – famously – banned Flash from the iPhone and the iPad.

Clearly, Google has no intention of dropping Flash anytime soon. It was after Jobs's attack on Flash that Google moved to actually bundle the Flash player with Chrome, and though it has added HTML5 support to YouTube, the world's largest video-sharing site will remain Flash-ified.

Google still needs Flash, you see, because YouTube still needs Flash. But it's also worth pointing out that Flash is a ridiculously popular advertising technology.

You can call Google a hypocrite if you like, but any web-video hypocrisy isn't limited to Mountain View. Surely, Apple takes the cake there. What we can say is that you should always be wary of anyone who uses the word "open". ®

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