Fear and Loathing in Online Video: The Video Codec Conundrum Continues

Fear and Loathing in Online Video: The Video Codec Conundrum Continues

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My last post described, what Google’s decision to drop H.264 from Chrome in favor of its own WebM format means for you, and concluded that this situation creates even more complexity video publishers, along with the potential of a massive increase in video publishing costs.

It’s been almost two weeks now since Google made that announcement and commentary across the web all led to a similar conclusion – that Flash video is the winner in this latest codec conundrum, and now the safest bet for publishing video for the web.

Many have both lauded and lambasted Google’s decision while many others have shrugged it off as not being a really a big deal.

Regardless of the debate around “open” and “closed” standards and patents or codecs and containers – the net result of Google’s decision affects the entire ecosystem of video content creators, publishers, developers and advertisers and has created an atmosphere of fear and loathing in online video.

Google replies to criticism

Google defended its decision in follow up post on the Chromium Blog: More about the Chrome HTML Video Codec Change, where Google Product Manager Mike Jazayeri addressed some of the key questions.

Regarding Google’s decision to support WebM for HTML <video> tag, Jazayeri provided the following explanation:

We believe there is great promise in the (video) tag and want to see it succeed. As itstands, the organizations involved in defining the HTML video standard are at an impasse. There is no agreement on which video codec should be the baseline standard. Firefox and Opera support the open WebM and Ogg Theora codecs and will not support H.264 due to its licensing requirements; Safari and IE9 support H.264. With this status quo, all publishers and developers using the <video> tag will be forced to support multiple formats.

This is not an ideal situation and we want to see a viable baseline codec that all browsers can support. 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.

Jazayeri admitted that H.264 has broader support in the publisher, developer, and hardware community today but due to its licensing requirements and patent royalties, which could potentially increase over time, it could not back it as the baseline in the HTML video standard. He reiterated Google’s vision to create “open innovation” for video on the web, and that its significant investment in making WebM an open platform for development was proof of that.

But Google was not abandoning H.264 altogether, Jazayeri said, and pointed out that the majority of H.264 videos on the web are viewed in plug-ins such as Flash and Silverlight, and H.264 will continue to be supported in Chrome through a plug-in as well. He admitted that this decision will force publishers to create multiple versions of their videos, but argued that it was already the case since Firefox and Opera never supported H.264 in the HTML <video> tag.

Additionally, Google is already doing that with YouTube videos and with the proliferation of mobile devices, platforms, and connectivity types across the web, he added that most content providers already produce multiple versions of their videos. Google is confident that WebM will emerge as a viable and compelling solution for publishers and the WebM Project team will soon release plugins that enable WebM support in Safari and IE9 via the HTML standard <video> tag.

Jazayeri’s final point acknowledged the elephant in the room:

Bottom line, we are at an impasse in the evolution of HTML video. Having no baseline codec in the HTML specification is far from ideal. This is why we’re joining others in the community to invest in WebM and encouraging every browser vendor to adopt it for the emerging HTML video platform. Our choice was to make a decision today and invest in open technology to move the platform forward, or to accept the status quo of a fragmented platform where the pace of innovation may be clouded by the interests of those collecting royalties. Seen in this light, we are choosing to bet on the open web and are confident this decision will spur innovation that benefits users and the industry.

Fear, loathing and confusion

Jazayeri’s post generated over 240 comments which spoke to the clear division within the business and developer communities, with many who have spoken out against Google’s principles of “open” calling it inconsistent and hypocritical, including:

While on the other side of the argument, others have come out in defense of Google’s decision:

But some have gone into great detail to provide unbiased analysis of the situation:

The video industry responds

Many voices within online video industry have spoken up as well, mainly to educate consumers and publishers. Brightcove launched its Jumpstart Your Online Video Strategy for 2011 webinar series and Sorenson Media’s David Dudas provided, A Simple Explanation Of The Huge WebM Versus H.264 Debate in a recent article on Business Insider.

Dudas offered the following analogy:

You can think of the H.264 and WebM video formats as modern day VHS and Betamax tapes, and think of the Web browsers on iOS and Android devices as the respective tape decks  (left as an exercise for the reader to determine which is which). Imagine coming home from the video store with your favorite new move on VHS tape and trying to cram it into a Betamax deck. Wouldn’t exactly work, would it? Well, that’s the same experience consumers will have in the near future as they try to watch H.264 video on Chrome-powered devices, or WebM video on Safari-powered devices. The format wars are alive and well my friends.

So what does this mean to you, the business person who depends on online video as a core part of your business? Quite frankly, it means you’re on the hook to ensure cross-device compatibility for all your video content.

Dudas offered a few real world examples of publishing video to Hulu and Netflix to describe the complexity that content publishers face to get their videos to “just work” on each of the platforms. Hulu provides a rich viewer experience on the web, but it doesn’t work on the iPad. In contrast to Netflix, which works on almost any device.

But making it “just work” isn’t easy, as Dudas said:

The complexities of device compatibility go far beyond the H.264 vs. WebM debate: each device supports different frame sizes, data rates, codec profiles, adaptive streaming protocols, digital rights management frameworks, and so on. The encoding phase of content production – and, to a lesser extent, the delivery – is where all of these things are either done right or done wrong. Doing it wrong means your encoded content may not play back, or – if it does play back – it may look absolutely terrible. We’re not sure which is worse. On the other hand, doing it right means your customers will be delighted rather than frustrated, captive rather than fleeting, which translates to more time and money spent with your business.

On ProVideo Coalition.com, Allan Tépper said that Google has thrown a monkey wrench into video distribution and complicated video producer’s workflow, and echoed Dudas’ advice:

What does this mean for us content producers? The goal of any intelligent content producer is to create material which is visible on all popular computers, mobile devices, set top boxes & HDTV sets with onboard streaming, including Apple’s iOS (AppleTV, iPad/iPhone/iPod Touch) and Google’s Android phones, tablets (including most non-Apple ones), and GoogleTV. Unless Google relents (which I hope but do not expect to happen), content producers who want to offer a universally accepted, seamless experience on the mentioned devices will be now need to encode web video in at least two video códecs (i.e. H.264 and WebM or Theora) with the required web code to auto-negotiate among raw H.264, raw WebM (or Theora), and H.264 embedded in Flash. Google has thrown a monkey wrench into our workflow and best practices, and I’m not the only one complaining.

Will Google drop H.264 in YouTube?

That’s the big question that’s been on everyone’s mind. The Guardian’s Charles Arthur asked Google directly and was told that this change is related to Chrome and not YouTube. Google supports many formats on YouTube, and has an opt-in HTML5 trial for YouTube. Browsers that support the video tag in HTML5 can choose either the H.264 video codec or the WebM format (with VP8 codec).

Arthur went on to ask a number of other related questions that posed by commenters of his previous post, Google’s WebM v H.264: who wins and loses in the video codec wars?, and summed up Google’s answers:

  • “YouTube isn’t giving up H.264. At all. You can, if you’re determined, get WebM/VP8 content on YouTube (both to contribute and download). There’s the possibility that it is re-encoding all its content into WebM – just as it did to H.264 in June 2007, when the iPhone was about to arrive. That took something like three or four months to do. The library is bigger now, but so is Google’s processing power.”
  • “The lack of any date, or inclination, on the part of YouTube indicates that this is purely a decision made by the Chrome team to push things along.”
  • “This isn’t going to affect the mobile side – so iPhones, iPads, iPod Touches are not going to go dark.”
  • “Hardware to decode VP8 might be on the horizon – but Google can’t do much to push it along except improve the codec, and do things like, well, drop H.264 support in its browser. (Pretty much everyone will see no difference, because the H.264 decoding will be handed off to the operating system.) I asked how many people are working on improving the VP8 codec, since that’s sometimes helpful to know: is it a priority? But Google didn’t want to discuss team sizes. Hm.”

WebM’s growing support

While this situation has become more complicated for video publishers, many within the tech industry believe that support for WebM will grow as the format gains wider adoption among software and hardware vendors. This past week, the Free Software Foundation, a non-profit corporation that advocates free software ideals and an early supporter of WebM, publicly urged web site owners to distribute videos in the WebM format, and abandon H.264.

This infographic by Niels Leenheer shows the current and future state of H.264 vs. WebM.  Click the image for the full size version.

From http://html5test.com

Changes for Google, Apple and HTML5

Whether or not Google’s claim of open video is genuine or not, or if its stand against H.264 in Chrome is really a swipe at Apple’s dominance in the mobile browser market, it’s interesting to note that both Google and Apple have seen a change in leadership within the last week – with Steve Jobs taking a leave of absence with Apple COO Tim Cook stepping in at Apple and Google Co-founder Larry Page replacing Eric Schmidt as Google’s new CEO.

It’s also interesting to note that just a few days after the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the international community that oversees the HTML standard, introduced a new HTML5 logo  to promote next-generation Web technology, a related standards group, the Web Hypertext Application Technology Working Group (WHATWG), a community of web browser manufacturers and people interested in evolving the HTML, declared that HTML5 was dead and that the HTML specification will henceforth just be known as “HTML” referred to simply as HTML.

As for the online video industry and what the future holds, the codec conundrum continues.


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