Not too long ago, Microsoft released an extension for Google Chrome which enabled H.264 HTML5 video playback. Now Google has returned the favor by offering a WebM plug-in for Internet Explorer 9 users. In a move which we can only describe as oozing with self-confidence, Google points out that there are some known issues -- visit this page, and revel in its blankness.
If you plan on using IE9 but don't want to miss out on all the WebM videos which are popping up, download and install the plug-in now. The plug-in only works on Vista and Windows 7, but conveniently the same is true for IE9.
Google has just dropped a bomb shell: Chrome will no longer support H.264 HTML5 video playback. The open-sourced WebM (VP8) and Ogg Theora video codecs will be the only options for HTML5 video. H.264 will not be dropped immediately, but probably with the next stable build of Chrome.
Google cites plenty of damning reasons for the exiling of H.264. Open codecs are improving faster, thanks to the contributions of "dozens of developers"; open codecs are more readily adopted by browsers and hardware vendors; and most importantly, codecs like WebM and Theora are free. Free from patents, free from licensing fees; free to use however you like.
Mozilla stated a few months ago that Firefox would never support H.264, which now leaves just Internet Explorer 9 as the sole supporter of H.264 HTML5 video. IE9 also supports WebM, however, which means H.264 will hopefully just fade away into patent-encumbered nothingness -- or perhaps Flash, which will still support H.264 video, has finally found its HTML5-era niche.
In other news, frothy blogger John Gruber mentions that this will force publishers and broadcasters to use Flash, or force them to re-encode their content for WebM delivery. The fact is, these companies don't want to distribute their content via HTML5 video. Flash, with its DRM and P2P, is a far more suitable platform for commercial broadcasting. Flash also has the advantage of being universally installed -- again, let's not forget that Firefox never intended to support H.264, and has a much larger market share than Chrome.
Update: apparently Safari also has native support for H.264 video, via WebKit rendering engine.
If you have followed web browser developments in the past months you probably noticed that a fight for the HTML5 video format broke out between the big players. Both Microsoft and Apple supported h.264 while Opera and Mozilla supported OGG Vorbis and Google Chrome both. This would have proven disastrous not only for end users who would run into video playback troubles if they used the wrong browser on a site but also webmasters who wanted to provide access to HTML5 video as they needed to make sure to support both standards for compatibility reasons (so that their visitors did not run into troubles).
A third contender was introduced by Google soon thereafter. VP8/WebM quickly became a possible solution for HTML5 video as four of the five major browser developers announced support for the standard (Apple is the remaining company that did not).