Google: you will now descend back to plugin hell

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In a brawl of principles, commerce, patents and desire for world domination the loosing party is usually one: compatibility.
How many pages of online flame produced incompatibility between Microsoft browsers and, well, everyone else? A lot. And it goes on and on, as some users and companies are suck in the past with IE6. But that’s a different problem, and this post it about Google and HTML5 video.

HTML5 was supposed to solve some compatibility problems by declaring standard video support. Lovely. Except people couldn’t agree what kind of codec should video tag use hence codec was not specified. Every time standard doesn’t specify exactly and up to the point where nobody in their right mind could possibly misinterpret what it says, you have a split. There will be at least one browser that will be “special” and end result is the same — web page follows the standard and yet breaks in some browser (and producing hacks galore where some people invent clever workarounds and others just serve completely different version of the page based on the browser signature).

Up to this point, most of the web video kinda sorta converged to H.264. Of course there are still other standards (hello, Microsoft) but most browsers can support it either natively or with a plug in (like FireFox does). And the primary objection was to the fact that if you sell online video (movie rental, for example), you have to pay royalties. Google wants to be in video rental business, hence… their announcement that H.264 will no longer be supported in Chrome browser.

But that’d be okay — we still have Flash as more or less universally compatible solution. It can play H.264. But Google will have none of that. For them, it’s a chance to push WebM as a new standard. Technically Google can do whatever it wants. It owns Youtube. If Youtube tomorrow starts serving only WebM video (after re-encoding huge pile of videos), people will have no choice but to get either supporting browsers, or a plug in. And Google promised to release plug-ins for other browsers. Plus it gets to kick Apple, as iPhone and other iOS devices seem to support H.264 natively, and who knows when or even if they will add support for WebM as well.

So, if Flash won’t continue to be primary method of video delivery, at least for 30% of users (Microsoft IE) there will be a need to install a plug in. And keep it up to date.

My biggest question is how will WebM deal with DRM and will it get wrapped into some other container too. Because if right owners won’t get satisfactory security for streaming content, it will mean they’ll stay with Silverlight solutions (like Netflix) which still means people have to download plugins, except this time it’s the silverlight.

Either way users loose. I wish Google would keep H.264. Yes, add WebM, no problems. No, don’t remove native H.264 support.

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