…For Certain Values of Open

Over at TechCrunch, MG Siegler looks at Google’s recent announcement of dropping support for H.264-encoded video from Chrome and acerbically asks, “So Google, you’ll be dropping support for Flash next, right?" In the comments, many people are arguing that the two aren’t the same at all. Here’s "Keith":

The Flash file format is open and anybody is able to build a player for it, without paying patent licensing royalties. Adobe’s Flash player is the best, and its code is closed, but that doesn’t make Flash closed. Instead, if you want to implement H.264, you do have to pay patent licensing royalties.

Are Keith and friends right? The Flex SDK is (mostly) available open source and they publish the specification for the SWF file format.

Well, hold on a bit. Is the RTF document format an open standard? Microsoft dutifully publishes specifications for it that’s more or less kept up to date. Yet I’ve never seen anyone in the open source community describe RTF as being open in the way HTML and OpenDocument are, because Microsoft still controls the standard. A freely available specification can still be proprietary. It’s not a coincidence that RTF can represent just about everything that Microsoft Word can do in a document, and absolutely nothing that it can’t.

Likewise, Flash is Adobe’s standard, pure and simple. Nobody will (successfully) extend the SWF format to do cool things that Adobe’s player can’t handle, and Adobe’s tools will always be first with new features. Adobe makes the specification freely available, but just like RTF, Flash is still a proprietary standard. Flash is what Adobe says it is.

In practice rather than theory, Flash is more proprietary than RTF. You can find multiple non-Microsoft text editors, both closed and open, that read and write RTF—some as their native file format. But there are no widely used tools for creation or playback of Flash files other than Adobe’s. And even on Linux, parts of Adobe’s ecosystem—including Flash Player itself—are, as the GNU guys would say, free as in beer rather than free as in freedom.

The best argument for Google booting H.264 from Chrome is that H.264 is definitively not open in the critical sense that it is, to sound GNU-ish again, “patent-encumbered.” The licensing group behind it has said that it will remain free for noncommercial use in perpetuity, but commercial uses, unlike Google’s VP8, cost money. (VP8 is the video codec Google bought from On2 and open-sourced; WebM is the “container,” the file format. The distinction is like that between H.264 and the MOV and FLV file containers that both might use H.264-encoded video.) Those costs aren’t particularly exorbitant, but despite assurances to the contrary there’s no guarantee that any of this won’t change. Legally, MPEG-LA gets to set—and change—the license terms.

But if patent concerns really are Google’s rationale, then it doesn’t rebut Siegler’s accusation of hypocrisy—it supports it. Flash, no matter how much open source goodness Adobe claims it’s been imbued with, is full of Adobe patents. It doesn’t matter that they’ve released the Flex SDK under the Mozilla Public License—Adobe can still enforce algorithmic patents if they choose, just as Fraunhofer/Technicolor can enforce MP3 patents whether or not you’re not you’re using a free software encoder/decoder. (Like MPEG-LA with H.264, Technicolor has simply chosen not to require licensing for noncommercial use.)

Yes, it’s in Adobe’s best interest right now to not play footsie with Flash patents, but it’s in MPEG-LA’s best interest not to do that with H.264, too. Google is not interested in freeing Chrome from the evils of patent-encumbered video delivery systems. I don’t know whether Google pays H.264 licensing for Chrome itself—if they do, they’d be saving a few million by dropping it. But hell, it’s Google. They have a few million in the couch cushions.

But what if Jason Perlow of ZDNet is onto something when he theorizes that it’s all actually about YouTube? Google might save a lot on storage if they only have to store one video format, enough for even a company their size to notice.

The lack of Flash in iOS created a new calculus for web developers: serve Flash components to anything that runs it and HTML5 H.264 video to things that don’t. WebM fans seem to think that it eventually will replace H.264 in that equation, but the set “things that do not run Flash and do not play H.264 video” is likely to remain largely congruent with the set “things web developers do not give rat poop about supporting” for some time to come. If YouTube really went exclusively WebM/VP8, I suspect they’d be standing alone among “big name” sites.

Last but not least, as a Slashdot comment John Gruber linked reminded me, WebM/VP8 is in an important sense just as proprietary as Flash and RTF are: it’s controlled by a single company. H.264 is licensed but controlled by an actual open standards body. And, of course, VP8 is patented: if Google is correct that those patents don’t infringe any of MPEG-LA’s, that just means that we have to rely on Google’s assurance that they will never change the terms they’re licensing patents under.

But, y’know, that’s okay, because it’s Google, man. How could you not trust a man with a face like Eric Schmidt’s?

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