Hah! We're only a few days into 2011 and the first big web-battle is already raging fiercely. If you haven't heard about it yet (which would rather surprising, but still), Google announced yesterday that it will be dropping h.264 support from Chrome in the very near future. Not immediately so web masters and developers have time to ready themselves, but in the coming months we'll see h.264 support scrapped from Chrome's radar. The reactions left and right are ... interesting.
apple and google, sitting in a tree
For some time now Google and Apple have been fighting a somewhat childish battle amongst themselves, which is slowly expanding to every sector they believe they should be dominating. When I say childish I'm talking about the behavior of both parties, because the decisions coming forth of this quarrel are far from playful and are key to determining the future of our web. Apple's rejection of Flash and Google's rejection of h.264 will shape web development in years to come.
But whatever good or bad comes of it, the fact that these decisions are made based on a silly rivalry can only hurt the web in the long run. Both parties claim to reject technologies based on lack of openness, but in the end they're just looking for personal gain, abusing web standards and open formats to reach their respective goals.
Hardly anyone cares about this because both parties have been busy building fanbases. There are Apple fans and Google fans, both clans supporting pretty much everything their "team" does. And if their favored party does something they don't like they simply jump ship and start to root for the other side. It's like an ordinary game of football, sadly there's a lot more at stake here.
People rejoiced when html5 video became usable through modern browser support and Flash fallbacks. A win for html5, we all declared! But from the very beginning it was clear html5 video implementations were going to be hampered by codec support. Firefox and Opera weren't ready to support h.264 because of licensing issues (which still exist today), Safari isn't planning on adding WebM support (the proposed web standard implemented by the rest, but closely linked to Google itself).
I've already complained about the decline of web professionalism in the past year, if you check the comments on the Chrome blog you can see how clueless the people who've mindlessly jumped on the html5 bandwagon really are. The shocked reactions at encoding every file twice are absolutely striking, while in fact they should have been doing that from the very start. It's a sad reminder that the ideology of the web is quickly abandoned in favor of laziness and monetary gain.
With this decision, Google puts the ball in Apple's camp. They are currently the only ones not planning any support for the WebM video format. Apple can still pull the quality card (h.264 currently beats the WebM codec hands down) but whether that's enough to convince the standards community is still unsure at this point. It would be quite a big gamble for Apple and if it goes wrong it's sure to put a serious dent into their shiny armor.
an uncertain future
We can only speculate what this change in Google's attitude might mean for the future of the web. But one thing is certain, if they mean business and stop supporting the h.264 format altogether they might even go as far as switching YouTube to WebM encoded files, leaving iOS users behind as they won't be able to access any videos on YouTube anymore (only one of the biggest and most popular sites on the web). There is after all no Flash fallback on iOS (hah!, the irony).
If this move blows up in Google's face though, this might affect the hype status html5 is currently enjoying, as people will lose trust in this new html standard. After all, one of its biggest selling points is turning into a complete disaster before it is even properly introduced to the masses. And while that's one reason why we might do well to support Google's move, I'm not all that happy to support the motives behind their decision.
The conclusion is simple: it's not even a matter of supporting or disapproving Google's plan, it's about recognizing the dirty game both companies are playing and the effect their decisions have on our job, our community. While I'm quite happy to see the balance on the h.264 vs WebM codec tilt in favor of WebM, I'm greatly disappointed by the reactions of the community and the obvious motives for this tilt.
The coming weeks and months will shed more light on the road Google is taking with their codec support, it will also be interesting to see whether IE will jump the h.264 ship (though very very(!) unlikely). The conclusion is simple though: once again web development is being dominated by the interests of larger than life companies. Google and Apple are not afraid of showing their true colors anymore, now publicly showcasing their identity of corporate monsters who abuse whatever cheap sales talk they can use, only now backed up by a large portion of a community who's vowed they wouldn't let things comes this far ever again, jeopardizing everything they so bravely fought for.