What if Google Didn't Drop H.264 in Chrome?

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I have read a ton of material from many surprisingly knowledgeable members of the sector over the past few days, all of whom are very down on Google for their announcements about H.264 and WebM. (See related articles here and here.) To sum up, the conventional wisdom is that Google's decision to not support H.264 natively in Chrome is a bad one for the industry, as it effectively prevents H.264's emergence as the de facto standard for all online video.

In the spirit of being contrary and ensuring that we look at the issue from multiple perspectives, I am going to play devil's advocate and examine a world where H.264 reigns supreme and Google (and no one else) presents any alternatives.

After all, reading between the lines of so many of my peers, this H.264-only world seems to be the implied utopian ideal.

So first we see a wonderful future: All encoding processes need only gear up for one codec. All workflows need only configure once, and the world would be free to argue just about the formats, with the compression options reduced to just a single choice. This would allow for ubiquity in terms of the distribution of the decompression parts of the codecs, and phone manufacturers and device manufactures could settle down to embedding their decompression algorithms and finalising their licensing with MPEG-LA. Indeed, it seems that the licensing fees are all a little more stable and cheaper now, and no one is worried that they will be stung by hidden fees out of the blue at some point in the future (although that's actually always going to be a possibility).

How wonderful: All we then need to worry about is RTMP/HTTP and format issues; compression is a given. Lovely.

But let's take a step back. Let's look at what would have happened if, having developed a lovely compression algorithm such as MPEG-2 (ubiquitous now in TV broadcast) the industry had decided, ten years or so ago, to stop innovating. Let's imagine MPEG-4 (targeting 1Mbps) had never been proposed.

Let's imagine that there had never been a movement to bring the target bitrate of streaming video below 2Mbps, and the MPEG-2 average of around 4Mbps had been perceived to be "just fine," and everyone had put down their tools and stopped innovating and instead focused on MPEG-TS servers.

Had that happened, we quite frankly would never have seen the birth of the streaming media industry. Certainly, the wait for 2 to 4Mbps broadband to arrive ubiquitously enough to consider IP as a suitable medium for MPEG-2 based online TV would have held back the industry for a considerable time. Indeed it is potentially arguable that, with streaming media being a key driver for broadband, had the movement to develop MPEG-4 and associated 1Mbps requirement NOT occurred, broadband itself may not have yet arrived.

2011 with no broadband. What a different world.

I believe that competition breeds innovation. In monotheistic/monopolistic worlds, ideas often head very quickly down cul-de-sacs.

Sometimes, illogical random twists and turns in the evolution of things (organisms and technologies alike) provide innovation and changes to patterns and processes that enable those things to survive in ways that their alternatives don't. Indeed, this is a fundamental law of evolution.

So in my mind, however illogical and questionable it is that Google are going to forge ahead with WebM in the face of H.264, I am confident that resilience and redundancy-not to mention diversity and variance-are important to the longevity and innovation in the space.

While it might be trendy to be down on the "Big-G," I think that's a limited and limiting view. We may find that the deployment of WebM reveals some thinking that allows us to bring, say, "SuperHD3D" streaming (or some other advancement we haven't yet invented) down to super-low Kbps bitrates that H.264 can't match.

I agree, this seems unlikely. But unless we know for sure, then I for one am all in favor of diversity, and think this is a brave and positive move of Google. I think it's healthy for the industry to have to continually work to re-invent itself.

It would be boring if it didn't!

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