So Google, You'll Be Dropping Support For Flash Next, Right?

Do you smell that? Just wait a second. You will.

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.

The bolding is mine, but that’s Google’s actual statement as to why they’re dropping support for the H.264 video codec from the Chromium open source browser (from which Chrome is built).

Erick wrote up the main story earlier today, but in my opinion, he didn’t go far enough in calling bullshit on this maneuver. Namely, how on Earth can Google get away with dropping support for one popular codec under the guise of “open” when baked into their browser is Flash, the decidedly un-open plug-in?

I’ve talked to Google a number of times about the Chrome/Flash issue over the past year. Namely because the only time Chrome ever fails or has performance issues is due to Flash. And because they bake it in, you have no choice but to live with it or manually disable it (which most users have no idea how to do, obviously). Anyway, Google’s stance is essentially that they bake it in for security and performance purposes.

Flash is a huge security risk in web browsers because flaws are not only found often but the patches take a lot time to matriculate to users — if they ever do. That’s because users are forced to install updates. Of course, that’s one big problem with being a plug-in in the first place rather than a standard part of the browser itself. So Google thought they could solve this problem just auto-updating Flash within Chrome.

And that’s all well and good. I don’t like getting Flash installed by default because of the performance issues, but I agree that this helps the vulnerability issues. The problem is that Google’s stated stance is now that they’re all about enabling “open innovation” by removing non-open technologies like H.264. That’s fine too. But you can’t be hypocritical, Google. Remove Flash too if that’s your real stance.

Of course, it’s much more complicated than that. One of the big backers of H.264 is Google’s ever-growing rival, Apple. More specifically, the technology is front and center to much of what iOS has to offer. iOS, which is the main rival to Google’s Android platform.

Meanwhile, WebM, the new codec Google is backing is one they themselves created. Yes, they did make it an open technology, but they clearly have a vested interest in getting it to succeed.

And that’s also fine. Open is great — when it works. The problem is that these types of things often tend to sound better as strategies on paper. As John Gruber points out, one thing WebM lacks versus H.264 is hardware decoders. They’re supposedly coming, but slowly. Who knows how long it will take and who will adopt. Plus, video encoders wouldn’t just have to stop using H.264, they’d have to start doing all their videos in this new codec. In other words, it’s likely to prop up Flash, not WebM.

Again, Flash, the non-open, non-standard tech. The one that’s built-in to Chrome despite Google’s new stance against such tech.

And it goes deeper still:

But how can Google justify dropping support for H.264, but not Flash (which also uses H.264 for video)? Simple, Adobe is also one of the WebM partners and will support WebM technologies inside Flash. Yup, Flash is siding with Google on this one.

Unsurprisingly, another WebM partner, Mozilla, is also talking up the move as a great step forward.

Yes, it’s a great hypocritical step forward that is just as likely to backfire.

H.264 has gained huge support in the past couple of years. In fact, as of last May, it made up some 66 percent of web videos. The issue people have with it is that while it’s free to use right now, the patents behind it may eventually make it no longer free. This past summer, MPEG LA, which owns the patents in question, stated that they would offer the codec royalty-free forever — but would only commit to non-commercial usage.

So yes, it’s murky. But as a number of people around the web have been pointing out, WebM may be as well. Its IP (which Google acquired) hasn’t been litigated yet. That’s at least just as murky.

But that’s a whole different debate that’s already being had in other places. The key point is that it’s fine if Google wants to take this stand for open. But to do so, they need to do it across the board. And that includes dropping Flash from Chrome just like they’re dropping H.264.

Quite frankly, I’m sick of Google taking stands for “open” and “doing what’s right” only conveniently when it’s in their best interest to do so. It’s fine to be a company with interests. Just be honest about them.

Don’t feed us bullshit and call it filet mignon. We can smell it. And taste it. And spit it back at you.

[photo: flickr/waferboard]