Anne van Kesteren

Why the Web needs WebM

The other day Google announced it will remove H.264 codec support from Chrome. I think this is great news. Like Mozilla removing support for the spacer element, but much bigger.

What we want from technologies that are part of the ‘Web Platform’ is that anyone in the world can do what they want with them without restrictions on usage. HTML, CSS, et cetera all easily meet this bar. While organizations may hold patents on specific parts of CSS or HTML they have agreed to not limit anyone in their use. This is not the case with the H.264 codec. Paraphrasing what Mike Shaver wrote in August last year: Only Internet transmission of H.264 content for uses where end users are not charged is free. Anything else, including hardware or software that creates and consumes H.264 content, is not. Some patents on H.264 are expected to last as long as 2028. This is why Opera and Mozilla chose not to endorse H.264. And why it is great that Google is joining us.

The argument has been made that WebM and most notably the VP8 codec is not a standard. And indeed it is not. The reason we are behind it nonetheless is that it is Royalty-Free (RF) like all other technologies part of the Web Platform and that we expect it will become a standard in due course. For comparison’s sake, we expect HTML5 will become a standard in due course too.

I believe it is more important for the technology we choose to distribute and store our collective information to be Royalty-Free and de facto than to be a standard encumbered by non-Royalty-Free patents. And lets face it, WebM has a specification, independent implementations, backing from hardware manufacturers, and is supported in all browsers that are not MPEG LA H.264 patent licensor — once Firefox 4 is released that makes about sixty percent of the desktop browser market.

The other argument that has been floating around is that because we do not support H.264 we should remove support for Flash — i.e. force people to use WebM if they want to distribute video. I love Apple for reducing the incentive to create Flash-based websites, but at this point it is not realistic for desktop browsers to disable plugin support altogether. If supporting H.264 enabled that, Safari could disable plugin support. (Adobe also announced VP8 (not WebM) support in Flash last May, but nothing has been heard since.)

The codec picture remains complicated, but now with Google fully behind WebM it has a better fighting chance. And although not supporting H.264 is certainly not just altruism — browsers that are not MPEG LA H.264 patent licensor would have to pay over six million US dollar a year — getting Microsoft and Apple behind WebM is the better way forward here for the Web Platform.