H.264: Double Standards in the Standards World

The H.264 standard has been getting a lot of press recently due to the announcement that Google will drop H.264 support from Chrome in favour of WebM, and the subsequent clarification of H.264 support from Google. In this post, we try to clarify the issue from a standards perspective and explain the complexities in the standards and open source world.

Background

The Web was initially not designed to deploy video content but users have always felt the need for video content. To fill in the gap for web based video, Adobe stepped in with Flash. Flash became a de-facto web standard and was deployed as a Web based plugin. This is normal for the Web – i.e. third party plugins are encouraged as a way to evolve the Web. Over time, the Flash plugin became the dominant de-facto standard for video on the Web. With HTML5, Web standards bodies have decided to create a new standard which supports the deployment of video on the Web natively (i.e. without a plugin). Overall, this is considered to be a good idea with the HTML5 standard seen as the official avenue to deploy (standards based) video. However, this left the question of which video format should be deployed within the next generation browsers. Which has resulted in the current debate between H.264 and WebM.

The players and the stakes

There is a lot at stake here, much like the VHS vs Betamax wars a generation ago. This is especially more so if we consider Web video will be a part of emerging mobile devices. Even though the H.264 format is a standard, there are some companies who own IPR related to the standard. MPEG-LA, the body which owns the IPR has made some concessions towards royalties but for many, including the Chrome group at Google, there remain concerns. The alternative is WebM, which is not a standard but is open source and royalty free. WebM is not a standard since it is developed by Google. It is open sourced but Google maintains the governance model (much as it does for Android). In contrast, H.264 is also open sourced BUT is not royalty free.

There is precedence with this move of one person/entity maintaining the governance model – such as Linux with Linus Torvalds – but when companies become custodians of an open source product, even when it is royalty free, there is an obvious conflict of interest and we see that with Google-Android. The rationale behind such a move from Google is self-interest i.e. encourage adoption of WebM when it is free, open sourced and royalty-free and hope that it becomes a de-facto standard for video and usage patterns could be captured for marketing.

Observations and Conclusions

A lot is at stake here but here are some observations:

- Adobe used a proprietary extension to the Web to solve a practical problem. Thus, Adobe was an innovator.

- The h.264 standard includes IPR.

- The free and open source initiative is actually controlled by one company (through the governance model).

- Two products in the same company (Chrome and YouTube) are following somewhat different strategies with respect to video

The only conclusion we can draw is: such paradoxes increasingly common