Google just announced on its Chromium blog that it will be removing support for the H.264 video codec from the Chrome web browser, in favor of supporting only its own open WebM codec (which, as we covered earlier, is based on On2 Technologies’ VP8) for HTML5 web videos using the <video> tag.

Earlier, Microsoft, Apple, and Google had decided to support H.264 (the dominant high-definition video codec) for HTML5 web video, while Mozilla and Opera supported only Google’s WebM codec.  Now, Google’s move leaves Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 9 and Apple’s Safari 5 as the only major browsers supporting the H.264 codec without plugins.  Ironically, since the vast majority of HTML5 video on the web today is encoded using H.264, Google’s move will likely reduce the usable installed base of HTML5 video-capable browsers.

Read on for more about Google’s web video codec move.

It’s certainly a gutsy move on Google’s part.  Open-source advocates point out that H.264 is not an open standard, but its patent holders have agreed to waive licensing fees for Internet video, so for the vast majority of content producers, it’s basically free today.  H.264 is backed by hardware acceleration across the board, particularly in the mobile space, where non-accelerated video codecs deliver sub-par performance and eat up precious battery life.  Google’s pushing for chipmakers to build WebM acceleration into their designs, but so far, its results pale in comparison to the H.264 hardware ecosystem.

Detractors point out that WebM (On2 VP8) may in many ways be an inferior codec to H.264, and even WebM’s “free” status may be in question.  It’s free for now, but many (including Apple) have pointed out that there may be unknown “phantom” patents, on the basis of which patent holders could sue browser makers, web developers, and others if the codec became broadly used.  These patent trolls, they say, are likely waiting for the codec to become popular, because they could then sue for significant damages.

Microsoft’s Tim Sneath responded to Google’s move with a tongue-in-cheek blog post likening WebM to the Esperanto language.  Writing as the “President of the United States of Google,” he decides to change the country’s official language from English to Esperanto:

Though English plays an important role in speech today, as our goal is to enable open innovation, its further use as a form of communication in this country will be prohibited and our resources directed towards languages that are untainted by real-world usage.

This should turn out to be an interesting battle, pitting Microsoft and Apple against Google, Mozilla, and Opera.  Of course, it’d be ironic if this codec fight were to stall HTML5 video’s progress as a whole in favor of content owners just sticking to Adobe’s tried-and-true Flash.