In case you weren’t aware, Microsoft and Google aren’t exactly seeing eye-to-eye right now. In fact, they really seem to hate one another in a public manner not normally exposed. So it should be no surprise that the two are also opposed to one another when it comes to their views of web video. Yes, it’s the H.264 versus WebM debate once again. But while Google, Apple, Mozilla, Opera and others have had their say, Microsoft has remained largely quiet. Until today.
Dean Hachamovitch, the man in charge of Internet Explorer for Microsoft, has taken the time to write a nearly 3,000 word piece about the situation today. It’s a long, great post well worth the read. But just in case you can’t make it through the entire post, I’ll summarize it simply: Microsoft is fully behind H.264 as the codec for web video going forward. Why? Because they have just as many reservations about WebM as Google all of a sudden seems to have about H.264.
I had a chance to speak with Hachamovitch last night about his thoughts on the situation. His take is very clear in that he’s confused by Google’s motives to ditch H.264. Specifically, he notes that at one point not too long ago, Microsoft, Apple, and Google all supported H.264 as a codec for HTML5 video on the web. Yes, believe it or not, Microsoft was actually on the side of many of the main players of the web when it came to a future technology. The one major player not on their side was, of course, Mozilla. But Microsoft was happy to make the plug-in to ensure that they supported H.264 for HTML5 video as well.
“We had a somewhat stable state in web video,” Hachamovitch says. Then something odd happened.
Google decided to pull their support for H.264 as the web video standard. The reason? The patents controlled by the MPEGLA group scared them. Or something. I’ve made my own thoughts pretty clear on this matter. I think that’s a total red herring. Google is pulling support for H.264 as a tactic in their war with Apple.
At first, they touted the maneuver as being all about supporting “open” formats. But if that’s the case, why not pull support for the Flash plug-in baked into every version of Chrome currently? Further, why not pull H.264 support out of the browser included with Android? The answer is because it’s not about open — it’s actually about control.
Worse, by turning their back on H.264, Google is ensuring that Flash will continue to remain the dominant force in web video for years to come. Flash supports H.264, which is great, but the issue here is that we need the HTML5 standard to fully support H.264, and that’s simply not going to happen without Google on board.
Some would say it wouldn’t anyway because of the potential patent issues. But as Microsoft (like many others) points out, it’s still not clear that the new WebM format also isn’t infringing on any patents. Hachamovitch points to the fact that when the JPEG patents were dug into, everyone from shoe sellers to the Green Bay Packers came out of the woodwork claiming ownership of some part.
Further, Microsoft sees no reason why MPEGLA will all of a sudden go hostile for the sake of making money. “It’s counter to their reason for existence,” Hachamovitch says.
Instead, H.264 has proven to be a format with wide adoption both from a hardware and software perspective. And that, fundamentally, is why Microsoft is backing it, and will continue to back it.
At the same time, they recognize why WebM could be a good format for some level of unification. So they’ve developed plug-ins to allowed both Internet Explorer and Firefox to play videos with that codec within Windows. But again, they just don’t see WebM as the ultimate HTML5 video standard. There are simply too many barriers to entry. And too many unanswered questions about patents.
In other words, Microsoft and Apple seem to see eye-to-eye on this level. And I’m right there with them. WebM sounds great on paper — until you actually read the paper. At that point, you quickly realize that it’s a crapshoot at best, and one that will take several years to go anywhere — if it ever does. And it’s one that could ultimately face the same type of patent questions currently surrounding H.264.
So Microsoft, like Apple, is taking the more sure bet. While it appears Google is once again out of touch with reality. Which is really too bad, because web video needs them.