Today I discovered via digi.no that the Chrome developers, in a surprising announcement, yesterday announced plans to drop H.264 support for HTML5 <video> in the browser. The argument used is that H.264 is not a "completely open" codec technology. If you believe H.264 was free for everyone to use, I recommend having a look at the essay "H.264 – Not The Kind Of Free That Matters". It is not free of cost for creators of video tools, nor those of us that want to publish on the Internet, and the terms provided by MPEG-LA excludes free software projects from licensing the patents needed for H.264. Some background information on the Google announcement is available from OSnews. A good read. :)
Not surprising, several people would prefer Google to keep promoting H.264, and John Gruber presents the mind set of these people quite well. His rhetorical questions provoked a reply from Thom Holwerda with another set of questions presenting the issues with H.264. Both are worth a read.
Some argue that if Google is dropping H.264 because it isn't free, they should also drop support for the Adobe Flash plugin. This argument was covered by Simon Phipps in todays blog post, which I find to put the issue in context. To me it make perfect sense to drop native H.264 support for HTML5 in the browser while still allowing plugins.
I suspect the reason this announcement make so many people protest, is that all the users and promoters of H.264 suddenly get an uneasy feeling that they might be backing the wrong horse. A lot of TV broadcasters have been moving to H.264 the last few years, and a lot of money has been invested in hardware based on the belief that they could use the same video format for both broadcasting and web publishing. Suddenly this belief is shaken.
An interesting question is why Google is doing this. While the presented argument might be true enough, I believe Google would only present the argument if the change make sense from a business perspective. One reason might be that they are currently negotiating with MPEG-LA over royalties or usage terms, and giving MPEG-LA the feeling that dropping H.264 completely from Chroome, Youtube and Google Video would improve the negotiation position of Google. Another reason might be that Google want to save money by not having to pay the video tax to MPEG-LA at all, and thus want to move to a video format not requiring royalties at all. A third reason might be that the Chrome development team simply want to avoid the Chrome/Chromium split to get more help with the development of Chrome. I guess time will tell.
Update 2011-01-15: The Google Chrome team provided more background and information on the move it a blog post yesterday.