Google is dropping support for the H.264 video compression scheme for the HTML5 video tag in its Chrome browser, although it will still be supported through plug-ins like Adobe Flash and Microsoft Silverlight. Google is instead backing the WebM Project and the VP8 compression scheme that it released royalty free following its acquisition of On2 Technologies.

Mike Jazayeri, product manager for the open source Chromium project on which the Google Chrome browser is based, announced that it was focussing on technologies that are developed and licensed based on open web principles. “Specifically, we are supporting the WebM (VP8) and Theora video codecs, and will consider adding support for other high-quality open codecs in the future,” he wrote. “Though H.264 plays an important role in video, as our goal is to enable open innovation, support for the codec will be removed and our resources directed towards completely open codec technologies.”

The announcement prompted a mixed reaction from the web development community. While some were supportive, many were critical.

In a subsequent note, the Google product manager clarified the reasoning behind the decision.

He explained that the organisations involved in defining the HTML5 video tag are at an impasse, with no agreement on video codec support. Firefox and Opera support the open WebM and Ogg Theora codecs and will not support H.264 due to its licensing requirements. Apple and Microsoft are both members of the MPEG LA consortium that licenses the standard and support H.264 in their Safari and Internet Explorer 9 browsers.

As a result, publishers and developers using the video tag will be obliged to support multiple video formats.

Google acknowledges that H.264 has broader support but argues that a video compression standard that involves patent royalty fees stifles innovation and suggests that this is not good for the long-term health of online video.

Google wants to see WebM established as an open alternative to H.264. It notes that the WebM Project team will release plugins to provide support in Safari and IE9 through the HTML5 video tag.

The Google Chrome browser currently has an estimated 10% share of the market, compared to around 30% for Firefox, which does not support H.264, although it will support WebM in the future.

The decision to remove H.264 video support in Chrome has been criticised by some as inconsistent. Chrome currently supports MP3 and AAC audio when used with the HTML5 audio tag, both of which are patented and subject to royalties.

H.264 video is widely deployed and implemented in hardware in billions of devices. Its incorporation into high-definition television standards means that it is likely to be around for decades.

WebM by contrast currently has minimal support, although hardware support is anticipated, and seems unlikely to achieve the same prevalence as H.264, for some time at least.

So what is the value of WebM? Some might say the availability of a royalty free alternative will at least ensure that patent fees for H.264 will be kept in check.

In practice, many publishers are likely to continue to distribute online video in H.264 format, either through the Adobe Flash plugin, or directly for those browsers that support it through the video tag.