Free Software Foundation Backs Google's Web Video Moves

by Ostatic Staff - Jan. 21, 2011

Google's recent announcements about web video standards and the Chrome browser continue to spark debate. In case you missed the first salvo in Google's web video brouhaha, on The Chromium Blog last week, Google officials wrote that they are putting more muscle behind the VP8 open source video codec, and that future versions of Chrome will support the WebM Project and Ogg Theora codecs. The upshot of the post was that Google is moving steadily away from supporting H.264 video, and that may eventually have a big impact on web publishers and device manufacturers. Now, the Free Software Foundation (FSF) has announced support for WebM--heralding it as an open standard.

According to the Free Software Foundation's post on WebM support:

"We applaud Google for this change; it's a positive step for free software, its users, and everyone who uses the Web. For a while now, watching video on the Web has been fraught with peril. Most of it is delivered with Flash, which is proprietary, nonstandard software. Free software alternatives like GNU Gnash are available, but the user experience isn't always as seamless as it ought to be.

When work began on the next version of the HTML standard, HTML5, work on video delivery and playback was a priority. But while everybody agrees on how the <video> tag should look, there's no agreement about how that video should be encoded. Microsoft and Apple support H.264; Mozilla and Opera support WebM and Ogg Theora. For a while, Google has been supporting all of these codecs—but now it's made a bold move to support free standards and drop H.264."

Of course, that's not how everybody feels about Google's move. While WebM is a move in the open direction, H.264 is an entrenched video standard that Google is shunning. Microsoft has already produced a response, dripping with sarcasm. The Microsoft response says:

"Specifically, we are supporting the Esperanto and Klingon languages, and will consider adding support for other high-quality constructed languages in the future. 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."

Whether you feel that Google's move toward an open video standard is self-serving or serves everyone, there is no doubt that Google benefits from support from organizations like the FSF.  The FSF's statement also notes:

"Some reaction to Google's move has suggested that it represents a step back for standards on the Web, because H.264 is supported by more hardware and software. Those comments represent a fundamental misunderstanding of the vision of the Web as free and unencumbered. We can only be free if we reject data formats that are restricted by patents."

There's the rub. Google's moves are open, and therefore will be embraced by many in the open source community, but the real test of Google's decision will come when users become frustrated with the inability of devices and browsers to speak H.264.