By Seth Weintraub
January 13, 2011

In a surprising move yesterday, Google announced that it would no longer support the web’s most common video format in its browser.  The web is not pleased.

The web is up in arms at what appears to be a double standard in keeping things open over at Google (GOOG).  In a blog post on their Chromium blog, Google wrote that it would no longer support H.264 video as an HTML5 embedded video, instead using its WebM open video standard.  WebM is the video format that Google is championing over the more entrenched H.264 standard set by the Motion Pictures Experts Group (MPEG-LA), a patent pooling body.

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.

These changes will occur in the next couple months but we are announcing them now to give content publishers and developers using HTML <video> an opportunity to make any necessary changes to their sites.

Google fully embraces Adobe’s proprietary Flash format, building support for it into its Chrome web browser, and even its ChomeOS computers, but why is it now shunning the common H.264 format?  

Google’s reasoning for embedding Flash into Chrome is that it can offer painless updates to Flash that ensure security and compatibility, not because it feels that Flash is an integral part of the open web.

But this has people calling Google hypocritical for supporting one closed standard (Flash) and not supporting another (H.264). That’s a fair criticism.

To be clear, Chrome will still play H.264 videos, it just won’t respect them as the embedded video tag in HTML5 webpages.

Mozilla’s Firefox (which controls 20-25% of the browser market) and Opera both use Ogg Theora video as the supported formats for HTML5 embedded video.  Microsoft’s (MSFT) Internet Explorer and Apple’s Safari both use H.264.  Both Microsoft and Apple (AAPL) are companies in the MPEG-LA.

The new breakdown would have about 40% of browser users on WebM (Opera <5%+ Chrome 10-15% + Firefox 20-25%) and 60% H.264 (IE 50-55% + Safari 5-10%).

Microsoft published a blog statement titled  An Open Letter from the President of the United States of Google, equating Google’s move to requiring Esperanto as the default language of an OS.

That’s a stretch, especially for Microsoft, a company that has a history of enforcing its own standards, regardless of their popularity.

Currently Chrome supports both WebM and H.264 formats, which is likely the best solution, at least at the moment.

It looks like Google is feeling a little uncomfortable about WebM’s prospects and perhaps a bit afraid of what the H.264 licensing group has in store. Perhaps the 40% of video on the web that YouTube commands is coming under some monetary pressure and will soon drop H.264? Maybe no one is supporting WebM so Google is trying to give it a push?

Whatever the reason, it was probably a bad idea to evoke the whole “open” debate when they have been such a big proponent of Flash.

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