There’s no question that this is a shot at competing platforms — iOS most of all — but this is bigger than just Google vs. Apple: this is Google vs. Everybody.
Google is now acting like the #1 mobile operating system vendor that many people expect it to be by the end of this year. Android’s growth is fueled by an onslaught of handset models from numerous OEMs. Video playback performance will be important on all of these devices, and dedicated hardware is a big part of that.
If H.264 becomes and remains the dominant codec, then Google needs to convince all of its partners to bundle H.264 decoder hardware in order to preserve a competitive video experience on Android. It cannot, however, guarantee them favorable licensing terms, because it is not a licensor in the H.264 patent pool. Android and Google could end up with a problem on their hands if OEMs hesitate or get hit with lawsuits.
Enter WebM/VP8. By overseeing both the technology and policy, Google has much more power to insulate its partners, and thus the entire Android platform, from disruptive patent or license disputes. If all goes well, it could go a step further and require Android OEMs to include VP8 decoder hardware from a (hand-picked, of course) list of vendors, guaranteeing a minimum standard of video playback on all Android devices. Google could even acquire one or more of these vendors for good measure.
Why dump H.264 entirely? Why not hedge your bets, especially if H.264 is working right now? Google says “our goal is to enable open innovation;” what it in fact means is “we prefer patents we own.”
There are plenty of fringe benefits as well. If WebM wins out, then rivals like Apple and Microsoft will have wasted tons of time and resources on H.264, wound up way behind the curve, and best of all, fallen directly under Google’s sphere of influence.
Obnoxious? Absolutely. Evil? I don’t think so. Google is taking an opportunity to shift the long-term future of mobile computing in its favor, without concern for short-term disruption. Sounds like another company I know.
The wrinkle, as many have pointed out, is that as long as Google continues to embrace Flash, nobody will even bother to look at WebM: they’ll just keep pumping out Flash video. Note, though, that Adobe is on the WebM/VP8 bandwagon. If future Flash authoring tools favor VP8, the codec will slip into agency, corporate, and media offices just like H.264 did. Google’s continued support for Flash may slow WebM delivery via HTML5, but it could very well accelerate penetration of the underlying VP8 codec.
It’s always your friends who stab you in the back. Android and Chrome will eventually have the market muscle to apply the knockout blow. That’s going to be a bad day for Adobe.