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Microsoft Sides With Apple on H.264 Video, Leaving Google in the Cold

Microsoft’s just promised to place H.264 video at the core of its web experiences. Why should you care? Because the tech giant is siding with Apple at Google’s expense.

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Microsoft’s just promised to place H.264 video at the core of its web experiences. Why should you care? Because it means the tech giant is siding with another company–Apple–at the expense of Google, which is pushing its own video codec.

In a blog posting titled “HTML5 and Web Video: Questions for the Industry from the Community,” Microsoft is effectively drawing the lines for a battle with Google about web video standards. It really doesn’t mince words: “A Web without video would be a dull Web and consumers, developers and businesses want video on the Web to just work. As an industry we know this and have, until recently, been on a path to make this a reality with HTML5 by integrating video into Web pages more natively using H.264.” This is a direct shot at Google, which has pledged to abandon default support for H.264 video in its Chrome browser, and a tacit admission that Apple’s push to make H.264 a de facto web standard has worked, and makes sense from a technical point of view.

“IE9 will support H.264” the posting promises. Microsoft also notes it’s released an add-on for rival browser Firefox on Windows to support H.264 video, and today it’s releasing a “plug-in for Google Chrome on Windows to provide support for H.264.” In other words, MS is enabling the re-inserting H.264 powers on Chrome.

MS isn’t putting all its eggs in one basket, however, and will “provide support for IE9 users who install third party WebM [Google’s own-brand, open source rival to H.264] video support on Windows, and they will be able to play WebM video in IE9.”

But here’s the killer line: “Many parties have raised legitimate questions about liability, risks and support for WebM and the proponents of WebM should answer them.” In other words, Google is now the adversary. There follows a lengthy discussion about the details of web video, and what MS’s concerns with Google’s video protocol are.

The move will have ramifications for Apple, Google, Adobe, and the future of rich media content on the Web. Adobe used to be king of this, but its proprietary Flash code has increasingly fallen out of favor due to its instabilities, security loopholes and processor-hogging habits (which equate to battery-hogging habits on a mobile device). Apple, and Steve Jobs in particular, led this charge most prominently–and iOS devices simply don’t support Flash tech, which was the code behind many web videos. The Internets responded to Apple, and very quickly much web video became H.265 compliant (including YouTube content), and thus playable on the iPad and iPhone.

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Google is, of course, an Apple rival–its Android OS supports Flash tech, and powers a horde of iPhone rival smartphones and iPad rival tablet PCs. Its decision to remove default support for H.264 video had the tech world scratching its head. Is this merely spiteful muscle-flexing by Google, to suggest it too can control the future of mobile tech?

Watch this space–the battle will continue. And the outcome will affect the way you view video on the web.

To read more news on this, and similar stuff, keep up with my updates by following me, Kit Eaton, on Twitter.

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About the author

I'm covering the science/tech/generally-exciting-and-innovative beat for Fast Company. Follow me on Twitter, or Google+ and you'll hear tons of interesting stuff, I promise. I've also got a PhD, and worked in such roles as professional scientist and theater technician...thankfully avoiding jobs like bodyguard and chicken shed-cleaner (bonus points if you get that reference!)

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