Browser Video Codec Support – Does it Matter?

The Google Chrome team recently announced it would drop support for the H.264 video codec. Dropping H264 is beneficial for Google in several ways: it may help Google’s WebM format gain additional traction in the market and solidifies Google’s stance as a supporter of open media formats in the WebM versus H264 debate, as most of Google’s other properties (including YouTube) still support H264.

Shortly after the announcement, a truckload of blog posts popped up, explaining the impact this would have on the adoption of WebM over H264. A couple interesting reads:

In spite of all the comments about this announcement, most commentators seem to gloss over its practical irrelevance. There’s a short, simple reason for this.

Flash

Suppose Internet Explorer 9 ships tomorrow and in the middle of the night, the IE team abandons H264 and ships the browser with WebM instead. Next, suppose every single Internet Explorer installation out there is instantly updated to v9, making WebM support widespread.

Nothing would change. Why? Because all video watched on the desktop is played through Flash, and Flash isn’t going away any time soon.

Publishers currently cannot move from Flash to HTML5, because HTML5 lacks vital technologies like adaptive streaming (for long-form / live content), content protection (for premium content) and playback locking (for advertising). On top of that, today’s entire online video ecosystem (ingestion, transcoding, advertising, analytics, viral sharing, etc.) is Flash based. Both obstacles will be overcome in time, but this will be a slow process of incremental technological advances.

To force a transition, some bloggers have suggested Chrome should entirely drop support for Flash. This definitely won’t happen. Flash is absolutely vital to the web. In addition to video, there’s applications like advertising (a $25B industry) and gaming (Farmville!) that fully depend on it. Any browser dropping Flash would instantly get dropped by both publishers and users in turn.

In summary, desktop browsers are stuck with Flash, and publishers will simply continue to use Flash. As the migration to HTML5 starts to happen, publishers will leverage Flash in browsers that do not support their video format of choice (be it H264 or WebM). Video platforms like Bits on the Run or Brightcove and video players like the JW Player facilitate such functionalities today.

As it pertains to WebM/H264, desktop browsers will not move the needle either way. But something else will.

Devices

Devices (phones, tablets, settops) do not have a history of supporting Flash and many will choose not to (as Apple has done for iOS). On devices where Flash is supported, CPU limitations will make it impossible to play video using software-based decoding. This means that even Flash will be limited by whatever video codecs the devices support in hardware. In other words: Flash cannot be used as a fallback for unsupported codecs as it is today for desktop browsers.

The choices device vendors (hardware + software) make will have the greatest impact the adoption of WebM. Publishers will be forced to choose between publishing their videos in whichever formats are natively supported on the most popular devices, or choose not to support certain platforms. While it’s still possible to distribute your content without worrying too much about the discrepancy between the platforms, the incredible growth of the phone, tablet and settop market will soon take that option off of the table.

That said, the odds are against WebM for now. H264 is available on nearly any phone, tablet and settop out there and WebM isn’t available on any device. Only after the launch of WebM hardware decoding can we expect to see announcements that can influence the uptake of WebM versus H264. Who will support WebM decoding? How good will it be (performance, streaming, protection) compared to H264? And who (besides Google) will dare dropping H264 decoding support?

Only after the various device vendors have picked their side (and users have picked their devices!), can we re-evaluate. Until then, announcements like the one made by the Chrome team will only have symbolic value.

9 Comments

  1. Consultoria RH February 1, 2012 - 11:18 EDT

    Useful information ..I am very happy to read this article..thanks for giving us this useful information. Fantastic walk-through. I appreciate this postConsultoria RH

  2. grantpe February 23, 2011 - 01:55 EDT

    Flash for things other than video is potenially replaceable using HTML5 tech and javascript (or just javascript…). The various canvus options should do 90% of what Flash games such as Farmville require. This also applies to Flash ads….most are actually moderately simple animations – you would just have to start thinking about them differently – and I have a feeling a HTML5 coded ad would be harder to block than either a Flash ad or aminated gif, as many ad blockers rely on the unusual tags surrounding Flash to give you options to block it.

    I think HTML5 video will be very closely linked to javascript to add to it, allowing forced adverts etc. I currently use JW player in a Flash only mode as thats I use the playlist functionality which is currently not avalible in HTML5.

  3. Kelly November 6, 2011 - 08:00 EDT

    Doesn’t matter how many iOS users are now, Apple will support flash soon at least for iPad. Main hater Steve is gone now, its a question of time, trust me guys :)
    As iPad user can say taht browsing is now limited for me.

  4. Gerrit van Aaken February 4, 2011 - 07:18 EDT

    15 million flash-less iPad users and counting …

  5. Jim February 4, 2011 - 03:17 EDT

    I honestly think most people are way too short sighted on this subject. It’s 2011. H.264 was finalized as a format in 2003. That’s eight years. The first few years saw very little adoption, with the same sort of arguments made against using it. After a few years devices started to ship with hardware decoding for H.264, Apple pushed H.264 with Quicktime, and Flash adopted the format, causing a big change.. Just like there was a critical adoption point for H.264 there can easily be one for WebM.

    You say that everyone seems to miss the point that this announcement and potential change to Google Chrome are irrelevant. I say a Flash-based advertising company saying Flash is here to stay is irrelevant, self-serving, short-sighted, and perpetuating the proprietary mess that exists right now.

    There is nothing that stands in the way of an open, public-key based DRM scheme for video on the web, nor anything technical that prevents using adaptive bitrate switching or live streaming natively. Just as it can be done in Flash it can be done in browsers. It seems the political side of things may interfere with the creation of new standards and the speed of their adoption, but even H.264 and Flash took years to get where they are today. Flash has the upper hand on time to market because only one organization controls it, but first is not always best.

    I personally think that Google has the right idea here, as self-serving as their goals with WebM may be, in that the web is better when it is open. They are slow, they are opening things up, and they have the money to wait it out until hardware decoders have saturated the market. I also recall Adobe announcing that they would support WebM in the near future with a Flash update. When most devices and all browsers support both H.264 and WebM, who is going to want to pay the H.264 licensing fees or sit under the umbrella of potential fee increases at some unknown point in the future jeopardizing their business?

    Honestly a lot of this is reminiscent of the FLV vs. H.264 debates. I remember it taking a while before H.264 could be used by most people. Think back over that transition. If WebM catches on we’ll likely see a transition period very much like that in the near future.

  6. Phil Ebert November 11, 2011 - 09:00 EDT

    I completely understand what everyone is talking about but many on the tech/coding side have forgotten the small website builders with our millions of small sites that will be completely pushed to the bottom of the search engines and out of existance because many of us will not be able to make the coding changes to our sites and I know that there are some that say, “GOOD!”. A case in point. I have a one person, home made site, that provides childrens activities and materials for free to the general public. I have been to several sites to get code that will allow my site to run on various browsers and devices and still cannot get it to work correctly after 4 weeks (part time) of beating myself in the face with a brick. I will figure it out and I will make the changes across my entire site but I am also sure many will not. I wish to thank all of you who have posted code and information on this topic!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Phil Ebert

  7. andrege June 8, 2013 - 07:21 EDT

    I’d need to verify with you here. Which isn’t something I often do! I take pleasure in reading a post that may possibly make people feel. Moreover, thanks for allowing me to comment!

  8. andrege June 8, 2013 - 07:35 EDT

    I’d need to verify with you here. Which isn’t something I often do! I take pleasure in reading a post that may possibly make people feel. Moreover, thanks for allowing me to comment!

  9. cdnXite.com February 4, 2011 - 08:32 EDT

    Why should you not pay for using H.264? In the real world nothing is free, why is it when using the Web as a business, free seems to be the key?
    Flash is one of the best product out there and the web is “alive” because of flash.
    It is always easy to “knock” (Flash is much more than video)
    Tell us what is so bad about Flash? and why?
    And please don not tell us what the future will bring, nobody knows!

    Dennis

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