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Microsoft puts H.264 video back into Chrome

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Google raised hackles in the Web video community last month when it announced its Chrome browser would be dropping support for H.264-encoded video in favor of Google’s own WebM standard. Now, of all people, Microsoft is firing back, announcing it is bringing H.264 video back to Google Chrome for Windows 7 users, by way of a free downloadable Windows Media Player HTML5 Extension for Chrome.

“At Microsoft we respect that Windows customers want the best experience of the Web including the ability to enjoy the widest range of content available on the Internet in H.264 format,” wrote Microsoft’s Claudio Caldato, in the company’s interoperability blog. “H.264 is an excellent and widely-used video format that serves the web very well today. As such, we will continue to ensure that developers and customers continue to have an optimal Web experience.”

Google’s decision to drop H.264 video centers around patent issues; it believes its WebM format is less encumbered by patents going forward and is thus a better choice for an open online video format. However, the net result of Chrome dropping support for H.264 video—since few other mainstream browsers currently support WebM video—is that video-heavy sites and services are reverting away from H.264 and back to Flash-based video—in other words, they’re abandoning a reasonably open and available standard for a completely proprietary technology, effectively reducing the openness of online video.

Microsoft’s release follows shortly on another free add-on for FireFox that enables Windows 7 users to play H.264 video using Windows 7’s built in media capabilities. Microsoft has long offered a Windows Media Player plug-in for Firefox.

Microsoft is one of many patent holders whose intellectual property is rolled into the H.264 video codec; however, the codec licensing terms are controlled by MPEG LA, not Microsoft, and the licensing terms have been well-defined for some time. Microsoft says it is also working with Google to bring WebM support to the WIndows platform.