Google Hearts Firefox 4 for WebM Video Support

Some folks at Google (s GOOG) are getting ready to celebrate as Firefox 4 quickly moves toward 10 million downloads, despite Firefox competing with Google’s Chrome browser. The reason: One of the new features added to Firefox 4 is support for Google’s open video format WebM. The browser release is the biggest boost for WebM since Google open-sourced the format last May, and it could help WebM to finally go mainstream.

Firefox 4 is the first official release to include WebM support. Beta versions of Firefox 4 have been able to play WebM videos for a number of months, but those were limited to a small group of early adopters. Firefox 3.6, on the other hand, was used by around 25 percent of all web users in February, according to the latest data from Statcounter, and all these users are now prompted to update to this week’s release, which will make their machines WebM-capable.

Around 50 percent of all web users could soon have access to WebM video playback.

The implications are even bigger when you look at the overall browser market, which has been divided between browsers supporting open video formats and browsers that don’t. Both Safari (s aapl) and IE (s msft) don’t support WebM and instead use H.264 for HTML5 video playback.

Google’s Chrome added WebM support last year, and Google decided to discontinue support for H.264 entirely earlier this year. Firefox has never supported H.264, but until recently, only supported the inferior Ogg Theora video format for HTML5 video. Opera was the first browser to add support for WebM earlier last year. Combine those two with Firefox 4, and you’re looking at a significant market share, as Mozilla Open Source Evangelist Chris Blizzard pointed out on the WebM blog:

“Firefox accounts for about 30% market share – or nearly a third of all browser users. When you combine that with Chrome and Opera it means that about 50% of internet users will have access to the high-quality WebM codec over the next few months, following the Firefox 4 adoption curve.”

Numbers like these could convince more web publishers to use WebM, or possibly expand some early tests of the format. One candidate for such a move is YouTube, which has been experimenting with WebM as part of its HTML5 trial. This beta test is currently opt-in, and it’s not widely publicized on YouTube’s website.

However, YouTube has been actively converting much of its catalog to WebM, and in November, had already made 80 percent of its regularly requested videos available in the format. With half the browsers accessing the site being capable of WebM playback soon, there’s little reason why YouTube couldn’t promote the format more aggressively.