Is H.264 Really Like English?

posted in: The Web | 1

WebM logo vp8 video codecSince Google announced that it is dropping the H.264 codec from its browser, we have seen just about every possible reaction, from praise to contempt.  None, however, were more amusing than Microsoft’s response, which likened Google’s abandoning H.264 to a country abandoning the English language.

Everything about the statement reeked of arrogance.  The blog post mocked Google’s statement saying:

“Though English plays an important role in speech today, as our goal is to enable open innovation, its further use as a form of communication in this country will be prohibited and our resources directed towards languages that are untainted by real-world usage”

English, after all, is the lingua franca of the world, and everyone is expected to know it.  That in itself is arrogant, but then to apply it to a video codec is just absurd.

They want us to blindly accept H.264, so they repeatedly leave out the fact that it is patented and we may or may not have to pay royalties one day on it, if we decide to use it.  Microsoft, the company that is building its own patent arsenal to attack free software, expects us to give up that freedom because “a lot of people are doing it.”

In other words, using their own analogy:  “So many people speak English, so just give up Spanish.   English is all you need, and it’s better because we like it more.”

Microsoft has always held the idea that the world should conform to their image of it, but times have changed.  The Internet opened up a whole new avenue of competition, and Microsoft is struggling to catch up with Google and others.

Apple and Microsoft complained about Ogg Theora not being as good as H.264, so Google created another open format for HTML5 video, WebM (vp8 video codec + Vorbis audio), to try to make a compromise.  If Apple and Microsoft actively contributed to it, they could help making something even better than H.264.  But these companies that still keep their trade secrets locked away in vaults fail to understand open collaboration and community development.  They want people to blindly trust them without giving them any good reason.

Tech corporations are still corporations, and money is still their bottom line.  Trusting Apple, Microsoft, or Google is naive.  Open software, content, and formats ensure that we do not have to put our trust in the good will of a money machine.

All it takes is one of those large corporations to sue a small business for patent infringement.  Deep pockets and teams of lawyers will make certain their corporations stay dominant, at the expense of the consumers.  But when technology is open, the people ultimately control it, and there is no way a corporation can sue every individual in the entire world.  If the English language were patented, do you think anyone would be allowed to speak it?  Only the wealthy and privileged would have access to it.

Languages are not created in labs or think tanks.  They organically develop over centuries as societies themselves grow.  H.264 is not like English or any other modern language.  If anything, open formats like Theora and WebM are more like languages, as they are controlled by the community of people who use them, not by a faceless patent firm with nothing but material gain as motivation.  H.264 is like a secret language that only those with money speak.

Some believe Google has already lost by abandoning H.264 and believe that Adobe is the real winner because Flash will continue to dominate (Adobe, by the way, is one of the supporters of WebM).  Here is how Google can prevent that:

  • Make WebM the standard format for YouTube.  The millions of YouTube users won’t care if they have to switch video formats, as long as it works
  • Give away free software to make encoding WebM as easy as possible, and provide the software on multiple platforms, including mobile devices
  • Partner with other companies and manufacturers to ensure WebM or Ogg Theora (or both) are used in their technology, promoting free and open formats

For years Microsoft let their users run a browser (Internet Explorer 6) that was like security swiss cheese, spawning an epidemic of computer viruses and other malware.  The anti-virus industry has them to thank for it.  IE6 was so bad with web standards, that it also spawned an entire generation of websites written in poor HTML code, because that was the only way to get them to work right in the most dominate browser.

Now Microsoft wants us to do the same with H.264, adopt it just because it is popular, even though other formats are better for the Web and better for all of us in the long run.  I therefore applaud Google for making the right decision, even if it may make a few people with fat wallets uncomfortable.  If abandoning the patent-laced H.264 is like abandoning English, then no hablo inglés.

  1. Justin Germino

    If there is demand then there will be extensions or updates to allow support, it is as simple as that, for the same reason that apps are cropping up that can get flash to work and translate on an iPad and iPhone now. Consumers set what companies will provide not the companies, Google tends to be a bit better about seeing trends just like Apple and can sometimes set what the consumer wants, but they are just as easily to backpedal if they make a mistake.

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