There are two big tech stories swirling around the Internet that some people are lumping together incorrectly. One is the old story that Apple refuses to ship Adobe Flash players on the iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch, all of which run iOS. The other is that Google now refuses to ship support for the h.264 video format in the Chrome web browser.

Some say these two moves are the same, but there is a difference. Apple is refusing to integrate a product into its software, while Google is attempting to create its own standard in defiance of what is widely used and deployed on the Internet today.

Adobe’s Flash platform is an object of strong love and hate online. It is widely deployed for games and video playback online, but at the same time the software is often slow, drains batteries, crashes (be careful with that link), and requires frequent updates for critical security problems. As a result, Apple is moving away from Flash, having stopped deploying it standard on some Macs, and actively blocking it on iOS.

Of course, in theory these problems are with Adobe’s own Flash player, not with the format in itself. However Adobe effectively prohibits a complete implementation of Flash by anyone else. Even when the company claimed to open up the format, that release was incomplete. Missing from the Flash opening were the RTMP specification for video playback, and the Sorenson Spark video codec. Yes, Adobe opened up the FLV video container format, but FLV by itself is worthless if it contains Sorenson Spark, which is still locked up, or is streamed with RTMP, which is strictly licensed.

So in effect, even if Apple wanted to create its own Flash player from scratch in order to support the format on iOS without all the issues that Adobe’s Flash player brings, it might not even be possible. Adobe prohibited all such actions until May 2008, and again even now key portions were omitted from that new, loose licensing. In effect, Adobe Flash remains a product of Adobe, under Adobe’s control, and not an Internet standard controlled by a broader community, beholden to none and open to all.

By contrast, that is precisely what the H.264 video codec is. H.264, also known as MPEG 4 Part 10 or MPEG 4 AVC, is a powerful, high-quality video codec, as witnessed by its inclusion in the Blu-Ray standard, its use in many Adobe Flash players, and the streaming of H.264 video by YouTube and by iTunes. Unlike Flash though, H.264 is not under the control of one company. Its patents are managed collectively by the industry group MPEG LA.

All of 29 companies participate in the H.264 patent pool and, according to MPEG LA, 941 companies are currently licensing the technology. This is not an unreasonable organization, or one that causes its licensees to be beholden to one company. MPEG LA is even creating a new pool for the LTE Wireless Internet standard used by Verizon and planned by AT&T, and another for the MVC standard for 3D video used on Blu-Ray. MPEG LA streamlines the patent licensing process, uses reasonable and non-discriminatory terms, and is suitable for world standards.

So for Google to reject H.264 and go its own way, with its own VP8 codec, is strange. Especially when we consider the questions raised by experts citing not only VP8’s inferiority to H.264, but the risks that VP8 infringes upon the H.264 patents anyway, we have to wonder what motives Google would have for removing H.264 from Chrome.

I can think of one great reason: by joining with Mozilla, Google has now balanced the scales of VP8 against H.264. Apple and Microsoft, both being members of the MPEG LA H.264 pool, have H.264 included in Safari today and in Internet Explorer when version 9 comes out. As long as Google’s Chrome supported H.264, it was effectively the standard, leaving Mozilla’s Firefox the odd man out. As a result, any content provider creating HTML 5 video was wise just to deploy H.264, which is royalty free forever for streaming free video.

But now, though, the HTML 5 video situation is much less clear. There’s no one standard to reach most major desktop browsers and the mobile world. As a result, some may just stay on Flash until HTML 5 is sorted out. The direct victim of that will be Apple and everyone with an iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch. When HTML 5 is hindered in favor of Flash, iOS loses and Android wins. It’s that simple: Google is working against the deployment of Internet standards in order to slap at Apple. The formula is simple: Chrome is dropping H.264 while YouTube is keeping it, because dropping H.264 on Chrome discourages content providers, while dropping H.264 from YouTube would harm YouTube access and market dominance.

Sure, there’s nothing wrong with a company doing what its leaders believe are in its best interests. But when Google and the firm’s apologists claim this is about openness for Google to reject an industry standard with a clear patent situation, in favor of its own proprietary codec with patent risks around it, that just doesn’t hold water. And when Google apologists compare Google’s rejection of an industry standard, with Apple’s rejection of a one-company product, that’s just a weak attempt at a tu quoque appeal to hypocrisy designed to distract from the real technological issues and tradeoffs involved.

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