January 13 2011

The Mobile Cold War

As most people know, Google is an advertising company. They may appear otherwise at times, but ultimately advertising has been and probably always will be their bread and butter. Given this, they have a vested interest in ensuring that they have influence in the various media where advertising is both an effective and saleable product.

This explains their various experiments and forays into other areas such as email, productivity applications and web browser software; these are all media in which Google sees potential for advertising in the future. It’s possible some or all of these won’t actually grow in the way they hope, but one area they’re now strongly involved in surely will: mobile computing.

A lot of people (particularly geeks) like to romantically portray Google’s interest in the mobile computing market as something of a Good vs Evil, Open vs. Closed struggle — typically against the likes of Apple and Microsoft. To do so misses the point of why Google are in that market in the first place: to have influence over the next significant computing platform where advertising will be an effective, saleable product.

Right now there are two platforms that look like potential candidates for that role; iOS and Android — and what we’re beginning to see is the start of a cold war between Google and Apple as they each manoeuvre to give their platform dominance. Google’s latest move in announcing that they intend to drop support for the H.264 codec in Chrome is another proxy-fight in this war.

Who benefits from a browser not supporting the (emerging) dominant codec for online video? Certainly not web users; any sites that they visit that only serve H.264 content won’t play video in Chrome any more. Contrary to what some are saying, this makes life harder for web developers too — whilst many forward-thinking developers are already serving HTML5 video in multiple codecs with a Flash fallback, many other companies are still debating how to move forwards, and Google’s decision only confuses this difficult area further. Of course, Adobe are bound to be delighted by this for the very reason that it extends the life of Flash as a technology for serving video online.

Turn the question on its head though and it takes on a new meaning. Who is hurt by this move? Apple and (to a lesser extent) Microsoft. Both have a vested interest in H.264’s success, not only in software and traditional computing platforms, but most significantly in the mobile computing arena. We’ve seen remarkable uptake of HTML5 video in the past two years on the back of growing iPad and iPhone audiences; any stalling of this process in favour of maintaining a Flash-based solution reduces the usefulness of these devices.

This is surely what Google is banking on; by using Chrome as a pawn to disrupt the otherwise-inevitable transition to H.264 (sorry Opera and Firefox; you’re not even in the game on these new platforms), Google is making a play to derail iOS to benefit Android. It’s that simple.

What’s also clear is that Google thinks the stakes are sufficiently high that it’s prepared to risk litigation for patent violation; as a technical analysis of VP8 (the codec behind WebM) reveals, VP8 shares enough patented features with H.264 that it’s nowhere near as patent-safe as it was purported (or perhaps merely hoped) to be. This probably means we’ve yet to see the full depths of what else they’re capable of in this cold war, and the next move from the likes of Apple and Microsoft is likely not far off.