WebM vs H.264

I’ve been trying to follow the logic behind Google’s recent decision to drop native support in their Chrome browser for the widely popular H.264 video format, favoring instead a relatively new container called WebM which uses Google’s VP8 codec. What I have been able to conclude is that the real loser in this deal is (big surprise) us. Those of us who actually enjoy using the Chrome browser will someday need to install a plugin to watch h.264 videos. In fact, Microsoft, a proponent of HTML5, has recently released a H.264 plugin for Chrome. Anyone with an Apple i-Device will totally be out of luck as there is no WebM support. Content producers will need to encode yet another video format and pay more for online storage AND invest in new software that can encode the VP8/WebM format. Web development costs will also increase to accommodate yet another format.

Google claims it is making the move because WebM is free and open. Well folks, H.264 is also free. Last year, MPEG LA, an industry group that manages the patents for H.264, said H.264 is free of royalty charges to encode web video and was free to all end users (at least for the next 4 years). Oh, and let’s throw this in, VP8 is also encumbered by its own patents and license issues, some claiming that portions of the technology are borrowed from the H.264 patent pool. My take is that Google seems to be flexing its internet muscle in order to foster greater adoption of the Android mobile operating system, and to possibly appease one of their business partners, Adobe.

To be fair, Google claims WebM also delivers high-quality video, just like H.264, but uses a smaller file size. That is a very important factor to consider as there are significant costs involved to host video online. And, since Google owns YouTube, smaller file sizes by themself are a great motivation. I’m not content to take Google at its word, as I personally have not had the opportunity to conduct any comparisons between the formats. Here at Sundog, we have four different solutions for encoding a variety of video formats, and none of them are currently WebM capable. (Well hello unexpected expense #1!)

For a very insightful and detailed analysis of Flash, h.264, and VP8, here are a couple posts from developer and codec-tester Jason Garrett-Glaser (Flash, Google, VP8, and the future of internet video and The first in-depth technical analysis of VP8) In a nutshell, he summarizes that Flash is bad and that WebM (VP8) provides no advantages to H.264.

So what does all this mean? For content producers, it means greater costs and added confusion with the arrival of another “standard” codec. For consumers, it means an elevated level of frustration when encountering video content that may not play in their browser.

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