Are Plug-ins the Future of Web Video?

The video codec wars continue, with parties on both sides of the debate digging in deeper. In a long blog post this morning, Microsoft (s MSFT) Corporate VP Dean Hachamovitch — the man behind Microsoft’s Internet Explorer — reiterated the software giant’s full support of H.264 as the dominant format for web video.

Hachamovitch said Microsoft is releasing a plug-in for Chrome users to be able to view H.264-encoded HTML5 videos. The move is a counter to Google’s (s GOOG) earlier announcement that it would remove support for H.264 in future versions of its Chrome web browser, relying instead on its own open-source WebM video format for playback of HTML5 video.

The rift has caused some to question the future of standards-based video on the web, as publishers are either forced to choose between H.264, which is supported by Microsoft’s IE9 and Apple’s (s AAPL) Safari web browsers, and WebM, which is backed by Mozilla’s Firefox, Opera and now Google Chrome. Alternatively, publishers can choose to support both, which would drive up the cost of encoding and storage of multiple video assets. Or they could just do what they’ve always done, which is to continue delivering web video through Adobe’s Flash (s ADBE) player on the web and encoding in H.264 for Apple iOS and other connected devices.

None of these solutions is ideal, which is why Google and Microsoft are building browser plug-ins to guarantee the widest available support of their favored format across all browsers. When it announced it was pulling support for H.264 in Chrome, Google said it would be doubling down on support of WebM through browser plug-ins that it was making available to IE and Safari users. And Microsoft says it has already built add-ons for Firefox users that wish to display HTML5 video in H.264.

While issuing plug-ins might quell some short-term concerns about HTML5 video delivery, they do little to solve the longer-range issues surrounding the future of web video. H.264, while widely adopted for Flash-based video delivery and on connected devices, is still encumbered by the threat of licensing body MPEG LA someday demanding fees for its use. And WebM, while open source, has some issues of its own; as Hachamovitch points out, Google hasn’t indemnified those that use WebM, which could protect video publishers from the threat of patent litigation.

There’s also the issue of hardware support, particularly in mobile devices where processing power is at a premium. Most devices on the market today have built-in hardware acceleration for H.264, which is one reason that publishers rely on it for delivery to those devices. But hardware designs lag behind software advances, which means it will be some time before WebM can be relied upon for HTML5 video without taxing mobile processors or draining device batteries.

Many publishers are keen on the idea of standards-based video delivery, but until these issues are solved, adoption of standards-based video by consumers and publishers will continue to lag delivery in proprietary formats like Adobe’s Flash.

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