With its alternative WebM video encoding technology now entering the marketplace, Google has announced plans to remove support for a widely used rival codec called H.264 favoured by Apple and Microsoft.
The move places Google instead firmly in the camp of browser makers Mozilla and Opera, which ardently desire basic web technologies to be unencumbered by patent restrictions.
"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," said Mike Jazayeri, a Google product manager, in a blog post.
A codec's job is to encode and decode video and audio, a technologically complicated balancing act. Codecs must reduce file sizes and enable streaming media that doesn't overtax networks, but they also must preserve as much quality as possible — for example, by trying to discard data that the human senses won't miss much and cleverly interpolate to fill in the gaps.
One big change coming with the new HTML5 version of the web page description language is built-in support for video; most web video today employs Adobe Systems' Flash Player plug-in, which uses H.264 and other codecs under the covers. Although HTML5 video has promise, disagreements in the W3C standards group have meant the draft standard omits specifying a particular codec.
H.264, also called AVC, is widely supported in video cameras, Blu-ray players and many other devices, but it comes with significant royalty licensing fees from a group called MPEG LA that licenses a pool of hundreds of patents.
WebM, though, has been an open-source, royalty-free specification since Google announced it last May. It comprises the VP8 video codec Google got through its acquisition of On2 Technology and the Theora audio codec associated with an earlier and otherwise largely unsuccessful royalty-free codec effort.
It's catching on — for example, with smartphone chip support from Rockchip announced last week. Hardware decoding means computing devices can decode WebM faster and without quickly sucking batteries dry. And Adobe has pledged to build VP8 support into a future version of Flash Player.