Google's Licensing Wars over MP4 and WebM: Design

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January 2011
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Oh Joy, let the licensing wars begin.

You may be wondering how Google Chrome's recent decision to abandon MP4 affects us? No one knows.

Chrome is still a small percent of the browser market, but we would still like to support Chrome if we can. However, there is not a good alternative to MP4 that has universal support, so web developers' options are limited. Their WebM format will not play on mobile devices yet, so unless a site offers both MP4 and WebM formats, mobile browsers won't be able to play the videos! Unfortunately it is not cost effective for small content providers to double encodes every video for WebM and MP4.

It's a bad move on Google's part because the internet cannot upgrade all it's video to WebM in the amount of time Google has allowed, so Chrome users are going to start complaining that they can't watch videos and they may abandon that browser. Yes, Google should encourage a move toward open source codecs, but in an industry that has so few "standards" they shouldn't just abandon de facto standards cold turkey. It presents an onerous burden on small content providers that don't have the resources that Google has to just re-encode all their videos or encode multiple versions (just imagine how much storage space and processing power will be required for Google to re-encode all their YouTube videos into another alternative format, they already have FLV and MP4 versions in multiple resolutions sizes up to 1080p HD video).

The history of the problem is that MP4 requires a license and some open source browsers don't want to or can't pay that fee (Opera, Firefox and Chrome), so they don't support MP4 in their <video> tag. Unfortunately the license holders won't make the codec free to decode. The ridiculous part is that content providers already pay licensing fees to encode the video in the first place, so you shouldn't have to pay a second fee to decode it. It's like an airport storage locker, you put in a quarter and take the key. You shouldn't have to put another quarter in to get your stuff out.

MP3 had similar problems, but some of the patents have expired and the same license holders have basically just stopped pursuing use violations. So effectively it's become a de facto standard for audio. We can hope that the same thing happens to MP4 eventually. The owners of the license are being very short sighted and they are going to lose the game if they don't become more flexible, because MP4 will be abandoned in favor of more open source options if a solution is not found. Unfortunately MP4 is superior to WebM in quality and size, so it would be a loss for everyone.

In the end, we'll see how it plays out.


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