Why On Earth Is Google Chrome Dropping H.264?

Yesterday Google Chrome announced that they would drop H.264 support. We ask a few questions and look at the possibilities of why they would do something so rash.

The world of the web is all in a tizzy since it was announced yesterday that Google’s Chrome would drop support for the H.264 video codec within the next couple of months. Why in the world they would do this is not exactly clear at this time, but I think it’s interesting to look at the different possibilities and to ask a few questions about why Chrome would do something so rash.

If you hadn’t heard the news yet, Chrome product manager Mike Jazayeri announced yesterday on The Chromium Blog that:

“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.

“These changes will occur in the next couple of months but we are announcing them now to give content publishers and developers using HTML <video> an opportunity to make any necessary changes to their sites.”

The “open codec technologies” that Jazayeri speaks of are none other than Google’s own WebM Project (VP8) and the Theora video codec. I understand that Google is using their Chromium project as a means to revolutionize the web and that ultimately a codec-free system would be ideal. But why cut H.264 out of the picture so abruptly? Do I smell a little competition-squashing going on here?

And what are the implications of this move? Well, basically as it stands now all sorts of websites are using the H.264 codec to encode video, including Google’s own YouTube, Vimeo, Netflix, Amazon, and more. If Chrome is dropping support for this codec in the next couple of months then that means that all of these websites need to re-encode all of their videos using WebM or once they officially drop H.264 no one will be able to watch videos on these sites from the Chrome browser. Is this just a tricky way to get virtually every video site on the web to re-encode using WebM? I’d say it seems that way.

John Gruber of Daring Fireball asks Google some simple, yet poignant questions about the decision to drop H.264 support in Chrome, a couple of which I think are worth pointing out here. For starters, he asks, “If H.264 support is being removed to “enable open innovation”, will Flash Player support be dropped as well?” That would only be fair, right? Currently Chrome bundles a Flash Player plugin and they’ve made no mention about dropping it. Why not?

Additionally, Gruber asks whether Google expects big companies like Netflix, Amazon, Vimeo and even Major League Baseball to dual-encode all of their video. He says, “If not, how will Chrome users watch this content other than by resorting to Flash Player’s support for H.264 playback?” And if Chrome is relying on Flash to deliver video content to viewers aren’t they contradicting their own dream to “enable open innovation” and foster a completely open codec environment online?

I’m not the only one who thinks Google is making a little bit of a hasty and bizarre decision on this one. What do you think of Chrome dropping H.264?