There has been no shortage of commentary on Google’s decision to drop support for H.264 in future versions of their Chrome browser. The FOSS community has been supportive of Google, unwilling to allow a web standard like the HTML5 <video> tag to be subject to royalty payments. Others argue that Google is just battling their competition, with consumer benefit a collateral casualty.
As Apple has demonstrated with the enormous success of their products in recent years, consumers don’t care about software Freedom. They don’t even care about their own freedom to use whatever apps they like, embracing Apple’s curated App Store experience to the iTune of 10 billion apps downloaded so far. Consumers care about ease of use and utility – the concrete features of products people value in their day-to-day work and play.
Consumers just want to watch video, anytime and anyplace on any device. They own cellphones and Blu-Ray players and DVRs that all encode video in H.264, and most of the video content out there originates in this format. Consumers don’t care about royalties. They don’t want to think about codecs. They care only about ease of use and utility. By deciding to drop H.264 from Chrome, Google is taking a stand. They’re forcing sites that deliver video on the web to encode that video twice, to reach the entire consumer audience, and forcing end-users to deal with unnecessary complexity. They’re raising the real costs of digital video for consumers. Whether they’re doing it for noble or cynical reasons doesn’t matter. Either way, Google is harming consumers. By claiming they’re doing it to “invest in openness”, they are enlisting the FOSS model as their ally – and that bodes badly for FOSS.
Yes, it sucks that there isn’t a royalty-free video codec with market traction that can be the standard format for the <video> tag. But Google is choosing to purposely fragment the market and screw consumers in the name of openness. FOSS advocates, beware! This battle won’t be won on abstract principle. The platform that delivers the superior consumer experience will win.