So Google has announced that it will drop support for H.264 in future iterations of its Chrome web browser. WebM will be the favored format for video rendering inside the web browser. Until this announcement very little people really knew about WebM. It was considered as a pet project of Google, like so many others. But with all the press of the last few days, it's impossible to ignore WebM anymore.
What people didn't realize is that Google paid a good amount of money for this technology. Not to make even more money out of it, but simply because the video inside the web browser was going nowhere. It was either the expensive H.264 or the "low" quality Theora for those who can't afford it. So Google bought On2 and VP8 with it and made it free and completely open. The exact kind of technology that is mandatory in W3C standards. They also converted most of their YouTube library to WebM (in 360p and 720p IIRC) which probably also costs a lot in storage.
The tone of most reactions to this move was "how dare you Google?". Which is pretty astonishing when you think about it. People blamed Google for abandoning H.264 in a web browser. Completely ignoring the fact that Mozilla and Opera have always been on that position. AFAIK the web has not collapsed because of this decision. In fact FireFox is now the dominant browser in Europe and Chrome is the fastest growing one. I don't see how this move is going to hurt anybody already serving video on the web.
Not only that but Mozilla and Opera are the ones to thank for the existence of HTML5, the ones that stood against MSIE and it's proprietary way of interpreting the CSS standards. Once again there's going to be a war on standards. This time Google is joining the party. And once again the standard should win in the end. It's not a matter of who has the biggest one, but what an open web means and doesn't mean.
Everyone who has been involved in the Audio/Video business knows how much patents are a nightmare to deal with. A real way of stopping innovation. It also costs a lot of money for small players, to the point were real business is almost impossible if you don't have a size large enough. At CoreCodec a large amount of our revenues were going each year to the MPEG LA for the use of MP3, H264 and AAC. On many products we didn't make any money other than what we had to pay for patents. If there are better business alternatives, everyone should embrace them.
In the flow of articles/comments I read a common argument coming back was that H.264 is already there. Yes, but almost noone is using the <video> tag right now. It's only at the experimental stage. They confuse the web browser and the entire video ecosystem. Everyone who's interested in the story of that <video> tag knows that although a great idea it was a problem due to browser fragmentation and the lack of agreement on the codec, H.264 being out of the question for many key players and likely the W3C who approves the standards. Now there's a solution in sight. Again a solution for the web browser not for the whole world of video. It's not a first arrived/first served system. If H.264 doesn't fit the bill there is no point continuing (or ever) supporting it. Because in the end something else will have to be used. This fact has always been known by all users of the <video> tag from the beginning.
Also it's not because something is there that any future development should stop. In fact everyone working with the <video> tag knows that it's an evolving technology that is bound to change until it stabilize. There are a lot of things coming like adaptive streaming (IMO the most important part of streaming that will make browsers useful players), transparency (for better integration of video in rich UI), 3D (3D WebM files are already playable on YouTube) and even likely some form of DRM if the browser is going to become the universal "cloud" video player. All of these changes will require many investment for people providing online video. The sooner they know what are the possible choices and the ones that will be the best investment, the better.
Plus the video on the web is still in infancy. Adaptive streaming is coming (and IMO the real stopper right now for real use of the browser as a video player), live streaming is coming, 3D is coming (should browsers support MVC too like on Blu-Ray?), transparent videos (for better integration in UIs) and likely DRMs will come too if video rentals are ever going to work without Flash/Silverlight on a desktop. So don't assume that was exists now is set is stone and should never change. All these technologies will require work and money from the people serving videos. The earliest they know the options and the likeliness of success, the better choices they can make. And there is no reason investing time and money in something that will not last in the end. What is clear now is that WebM is not a pet project, it's here to stay.
I've been involved in the development of WebM even before it was out (no surprise that I'm a supporter then). And one thing that stroke me so far was that the most active in its development were Mozilla (3D and live streaming) and Opera (live streaming). Chrome has always been trailing with new features of WebM or even bug fixes. Now Google is finally putting its money where its mouth is. It's being pragmatic AND ideological, not one OR the other. The support of Flash being the pragmatic part here. Not only that but Adobe has been a supporter of WebM since day one (and even before). I wouldn't be surprised if Flash would support WebM in the future. That would make sense for them too. If that ever happens, WebM will be the format that would play on all platforms, unlike H.264. And would likely be decisive in making WebM the first choice when putting video on the web.
In the end one can always think of it as a big conspiracy from Google, Mozilla and Opera to free the web from audio/video patents, and keep the World Wide Web utopia alive and kicking.