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This Week in Google’s discussion of H.264

In Web development on January 27, 2011 by Matt Giuca Tagged: , , , , , ,

I’ve been an avid listener of This Week in Google for the past few months now. Don’t get me wrong — I really love Leo, Jeff and Gina. They are usually very insightful and nearly always defend Google when they need defending (e.g., in the Wi-Fi spying debacle), but they’ll go against Google when they do the wrong thing (e.g., the Verizon net neutrality deal). Being three web entrepreneurs, these guys seem to really “get” the concept of the open web. So I couldn’t understand why, in episode #77, the three of them unanimously and almost without any debate or counter-arguments, bagged out the recent Google decision to drop H.264 from Chrome (which I blogged about previously). They brought up all the same arguments: Google are just doing this to get back at Apple, Google are trying to support Flash, Google made an Evil move. I tweeted “Surprised & dismayed to hear a unanimously anti-Google stance re #h264 on #TWiG. Was expecting a less short-sighted and Apple-centric view.”

So I was keen to catch their follow-up discussion this week, and it wasn’t what I expected. They came back a little sheepish (from having been too hard on Google), a little apologetic, and a little more understanding. Unfortunately, though, they seem to have misunderstood some crucial technical details, rendering their new defense of Google (“it was a bad PR move”) almost entirely invalid. I took the time to transcribe the entire conversation on this topic, from TWiG #78 (from 26 minutes in — underlines mine):

Leo: Now it’s been a week. We’ve absorbed the dropping of H.264. We talked a lot about it, if you didn’t hear last week’s TWiG, Kevin Marks was on. He was great, he explained it all. We’ve had time to think about it. Do either of you feel a little bit better about Google dropping H.264, cause I’ll say up front, I kinda do. I kind of, maybe I’m a true believer, but I kind of think that they took a pretty big hit in the name of openness. Do you feel better, Gina?
Gina: They definitely took a pretty big hit. We were pretty hard on them. I do feel a little better about it, although I have to say I’m looking at the Engadget article now. Did they issue a public defense?
Leo: Well it wasn’t very …
Gina: It wasn’t very public, was it?
Leo: It was public, but I don’t think it was that compelling. They basically just re-iterated, “no, we did this for openness.”
Gina: And the core of this argument is “we’re not evil, like we’re doing this thing that could be interpreted as evil or not, just trust us, our motives are not evil.”
Leo: I don’t think that’s a good argument. (laughs) “Trust us, we’re not evil.  Trust us! Really! Honest!”
Gina: Well, you know, we care about the future of the web, we want to make it open.
Leo: I mean, it carried water for me because I believe fundamentally that’s true. I know far too many Google people, which is always a mistake, I admit it. In fact one of the things I’ve always done in my career is distance myself from the companies I cover, cause once you start knowing them and liking them it’s very hard to believe ill of them.
Jeff: Amen.
Leo: So maybe I know them too well.
Gina: I admit to that too.
Leo: But all the engineers I know at Google really are highly committed to open. So even if corporate says “No” for business reasons, the troops at Google aren’t going to go along for the ride. And I do believe you can say, look, we understand WebM may be slightly encumbered, may be slightly undesirable, nobody’s using WebM, no browser supports it, but we want to put a flag in the sand. We want to say “open is better.” There’s gonna be some pain. We’re gonna suffer some pain. I understood their argument. Don’t confuse Flash (cause we said that this de facto helps flash) — but they said OK, yes, maybe, but don’t confuse Flash with H.264. These are different things. What we are talking about is the video, and I did say this last week, it’s the thing. What is HTML5 gonna do when it sees . And you can all add plugins for every codec you want, that’s fine, but we are gonna put a stake in the sand and say, “What it should do is use WebM. It should use an unencumbered open standard.”
Jeff: Isn’t that a different way to say it, Leo, is that that’s a default, rather than support. They said “We’re going to stop supporting H.264. You can ship the codec with it, but we’re gonna default to WebM.”
Leo: If you use Windows, and Chrome, it will support H.264, cause Windows builds in the codec.
Gina: Well the Chromium project never supported H.264.
Leo: Nor did Mozilla.
Gina: But Chromium and Chrome are different, right. So Chrome is the Google product that they’re gonna ship, so they used to support H.264. Chromium didn’t, but now they’re not. I think honestly this was just a bad PR move.
Jeff: I think that’s what I’m saying, is you can say it differently, and say “we’re gonna default to open now“, and everyone would have hugged them.
Leo: I think the problem is it’s too technical of a … that’s kind of what they’re saying but it’s technical. They said “”, but I don’t think that most even technical people understand the difference between a plugin and native support. There has never been in HTML a definition of what happens when you see video. In every case, up until now, when you see video you have to have a plugin. HTML does not support video. HTML5 will support a tag. What happens when that tag happens? What does the browser do? Does it go out and and launch a plugin? Well it could, in fact it will have to in Safari, and that’s why Google says they’re gonna make WebM plugins for Safari, we’re gonna make a WebM plugin for IE9, but that’s interim. The real question is if it’s an HTML5 browser, and it runs across a tag, has no plugins, has no Flash, there’s nothing installed, what’s it gonna do when it sees ? And we believe that all browsers should default to a baseline of WebM. If you want to add more, that’s fine.
Jeff: That’s fine. The problem here is the precedent set by Apple, with Flash. It sounded like that.
Leo: You’re right. You know what, you’re exactly right. You hit the nail on the head. In the context of what Apple did, it sounded like they were doing the same thing.
Jeff: Exactly. That’s the PR problem they had, and so it was so easy to say “you can install whatever you want, folks, but we are now going to default to open.” Would have been fine.
Leo: Perfect. You’re right.
Jeff: “We’re gonna not support H.264,” that sounds like such a Steve Jobs thing (love you, Steve, hope you’re better).
Leo: They should hire us to do their PR. (laughs)
Gina: Yeah, I wonder. I don’t think they expected the backlash they got, like some project manager posted this on the Chromium blog, I don’t think they maybe expected the response that they got.
Leo: I think that’s the case, and this is one of the reasons I like Google. They’re not that polished actually.

So firstly, some factual issues. “No browser supports it” is bullshit — WebM is fully supported in recent releases of Chrome/Chromium and Opera, and in recent betas of Firefox. As for the claim that Chrome on Windows will use H.264 regardless, I believe this is false (and Leo won’t like it). It is my understanding (supported by this blog post) that Chrome, like Firefox and Opera, but unlike IE and Safari, uses only its own bundled codecs (Theora and WebM, and for the time being H.264), not the system ones. This means that dropping H.264 support from Chrome would mean it couldn’t play H.264 video, even if Windows had the codec installed. I think that’s the way it should be, because otherwise web admins will upload videos in a thousand random codecs of whatever they have installed on their system, and the web will fragment. As argued in the same post, it is better to have a small set of standard codecs in the browser.

Now I really don’t get what Gina meant by “this thing that could be interpreted as evil or not, just trust us, our motives are not evil.” As I argued previously, I don’t like having to trust companies not to be evil, and in this case, I don’t have to. Google has made a perpetual royalty-free license on WebM so they cannot turn around and stab us in the back. Google’s intentions here are out in the open. They don’t want browser manufacturers (which includes themselves) and video content hosts (which includes themselves) to have to pay a license to serve and play video. This isn’t an altruistic position. It is pragmatic and in their own interests (and happily, ours too). When a company does something altruistic, you need to be suspicious and look for the hidden agenda. There is no hidden agenda here; they are looking out for their own bottom line, and the health of the web (which they profit from).

And then we get bogged down in this very murky discussion of “defaults” versus “support”. Re-reading the transcript, Leo seems to be suggesting that which codec to use is up to the browser — somewhat true, but only if the website supports both codecs. They seem relieved to discover that this news means not that Chrome won’t support H.264, but only that it will prioritise WebM over H.264 if given the choice. Is that what they’re saying? It isn’t correct. It is true that Chrome won’t support H.264. If Chrome finds a website that only supports HTML5/H.264, it will not play the video. Jeff claims that saying “we won’t support H.264” is an Apple thing to say, whereas saying “we default to WebM” is what they should have said. I disagree — “we won’t support H.264” is the truth, whether you like it or not. “We default to WebM” sounds exactly like the sort of spin Apple would put on this announcement. It seems we’re now in such an Apple-centric world that the truth is considered “bad PR”, whereas a vague and confusing spin which hides the true nature of the underlying technology is something people are happy with.

But it gets murkier. They seem to be confusing “no support” as in “this software does not contain this feature” with “no support” as in “you are expressly, technically and legally, forbidden from adding this feature to your own device.” This is what distinguishes Google from Apple, and that’s what they missed. Because it’s true that Google will no longer be supplying the H.264 feature on Chrome, just as Apple decided not to supply the Flash feature on iOS — in that regard, this is the same thing as Steve Jobs saying “we will not support Flash.” Which, by the way, I have no problem with — Jobs can put any software he wants in his product, and leave out any he doesn’t want. The difference is that not only is Chromium open source, so you can add the feature back if you really want it, but that even the closed-source Chrome supports plugins, so you could add a H.264 plugin. iOS explicitly forbids you from installing Flash.

I feel like it’s been a week, and we’ve had all this arguing, and finally have forgiven Google for all the wrong reasons. Rather than celebrating a major step towards removing the last holdout for the open web, rather than realising as much as you like H.264, it would never have been supported by Firefox anyway (not because Mozilla are pig-headed, but because as an open source company they literally can’t support it, and even if they did, Linux distros would have to take it out again) — and that that is precisely why it is a bad thing, we have instead forgiven Google because it turns out we can work around this decision and use H.264 after all. Way to entirely miss the point.

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