Chromium and Chrome drop H.264 codec support

The open-source Chromium project, which forms the heart of Google's Chrome browser, shocked its users yesterday by announcing that it was ditching support for the popular H.264 codec in its HTML5 implementation.

HTML5, the latest version of the HTML specification, brings impressive multimedia capabilities - including the tag, which allows video content to be embedded within a page and played back directly in the browser with no plug-ins or helper applications required. It does mean, however, that the browser needs in-built support for the codec used.

While Chromium, and by extension Chrome, had previously included support for the widely-used H.264 MPEG4 codec, the team announced late yesterday that they would be removing the support in future versions of the browser in favour of open-source codecs WebM and Ogg Theora.

The two choices of codecs make sense: WebM is Google's own video codec, an open-source implementation of the VP8 high-performance streaming codec, and Ogg Theora is a popular choice among free software types - and the default video codec in Mozilla's Firefox browser.

The decision to remove H.264 altogether, however, has left users scratching their heads. Comments from Chromium users on microblogging service Twitter, where the cause has rallied under the hashtag #h264gate, describe the move as a 'way to annoy the Internet,' and 'idiotic,' while others point out that although support for the patent-encumbered H.264 codec has been dropped from the tag Chromium still supports the equally restricted MP3 format for the tag.

Speaking in an announcement on the official Chromium blog, product manager Mike Jazayeri claimed: "We expect even more rapid innovation in the web media platform in the coming year and are focusing our investments in those technologies that are developed and licensed based on open web principle.

"Though H.264 plays an important role in video, as our goal is to enable open innovation, support for the codec will be removed and our resources directed towards completely open codec technologies."

The changes to the Chromium codebase are expected to take place over the next few months, with developers forewarned so as to make any changes to their sites that may be required.

While some are questioning whether the dropping of H.264 support from Chromium will truly do anything to help improve the popularity of open codecs like WebM - which recently got its first hardware decode implementation in Rockchip's ARM-based RK2918 SoC - it could prove a shot in the arm for Adobe's Flash technology, which remains one of the only ways to guarantee a streaming video's cross-compatibility with different browsers.