Google Chrome ditches H.264

by Simon Aughton on January 12, 2011

Google has decided that future versions of its Chrome web browser will not have built-in support the H.264 video standard.

Instead native video playback will only be possible for content encoded using the open source Theora or Google’s own WebM (aka VP8) formats.

“We expect even more rapid innovation in the web media platform in the coming year and are focusing our investments in those technologies that are developed and licensed based on open web principles. To that end, we are changing Chrome’s HTML5 <video> support to make it consistent with the codecs already supported by the open Chromium project,” said Mike Jazayeri, Chrome product manager.

“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.”

Open codec technologies and Flash, which is now built into Chrome and wasn’t mentioned by Jazayeri, even though most Flash video is now encoded using the H.264 codec.

Jazayeri said that the changes will occur in the next couple months but Google is announcing them now to give content publishers and developers who have deployed HTML5 video to make “any necessary changes”. However, as Daring Fireball’s John Gruber points out, they will likely revert to Flash, rather than re-encode all their content.

“My bet is that this is just going to push publishers toward forcing Chrome users to use Flash for video playback,” he wrote. “Google can fix this for YouTube on its own, and admittedly, that covers an awful lot of web video. But I think everywhere else, H.264 will continue to dominate, and instead of getting native playback, Chrome users will get playback through Flash.”

And while that’s great news for Adobe, it might not be so welcome amongst users of portable and mobile devices: Flash playback is notoriously hard on battery life. And it’s questionable whether native WebM or Theora video would be any better, since neither can draw on the same hardware decoding chips that enable iOS devices, for example, to play H.264 video smoothly and without sucking the life out of the battery.

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