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Ars Technica feels Google's stance on H.264 is backwards and hypocritical

Peter Bright writes:

If openness is so important that Google is willing to remove features from Chrome, there is no way that the company should be shipping Flash in Chrome.

Other features, too, should be culled. Chrome (currently) supports MP3 and AAC audio when used with HTML5’s <audio> tag. Both of these compression algorithms are patent-encumbered, and neither is royalty-free (though both are, like H.264, open standards developed by industry consortia). They should be no more acceptable to Google than H.264. But if the company plans to remove them, it certainly hasn’t said so.

At the very least, there appears to be a significant inconsistency between the company’s actions regarding video support, and the rest of its browser. If it’s going remove features for poorly-articulated ideological reasons, it would surely make sense to apply that ideology consistently.

Not sure how I feel about this. On the one hand, I put a lot of weight (more than most people) on logical and ideological consistency. I don’t find it surprising that Google might have some unstated ulterior, not-so-benign motives (they’re a for-profit corporation, after all). On the other hand, royalties do add up, especially for online web-apps and desktop software, and fighting as many royalties as possible is a good thing for reducing the barrier to the entry of new technology innovation. Google doesn’t have to have an all-or-nothing approach to their ideology. Web video standards are just arriving, while web image standards have been set for well over a decade now, and pragmatism could just mean that they’re choosing only to fight battles they might win.

In the end, though, I think a lot of people’s arguments come from a confusion of the terms “open” and “free”, since there are really three different things here: “open” (as in standards) vs. “free” (as in beer) vs. “free” as in speech. They are all orthogonal, in some way. H.264 is the first, but not the second or third. WebM is the second, but not the first. Theora is the third, but unfortunately it’s kind of a crappy codec, from what I’ve heard. Flash isn’t a codec, but as a container for codecs, it’s the second, but not (anymore) the first or the third.

So, what should we choose? Unfortunately, freedom isn’t free, since it (like desktop Linux) tends to be crappy, and it can lead to obsolescence of current technology (e.g. current iOS devices, video equipment, and software). But is it worth these prices?