it’s been a good day for open standards, which means a bad one for apple and a good one for google. in the last 24 hours, google has delivered two punches that have got to hurt: first, it pretty much killed apple’s preferred web video standard by introducing a near-universally supported open alternative. and second, today they delivered a credible challenge to what is arguably apple’s strongest asset of all: the itunes/app store “ecosystem”.
first, web video: google released, as expected, their vp8 codec as a fully open source alternative for html5 video. what was not fully anticipated, was the degree of support from other major browsers: firefox, opera and – yes – internet explorer and adobe flash are all aboard (with some caveats for ie). which means that apple’s safari (which is the default browser on iphone and ipad) is the only significant browser which does not support the new standard.
take a minute to think about what this means. before yesterday, the biggest problem with html5 video was that the html5-enabled browsers (including the upcoming ie9) were divided down the middle, supporting two different standards (theora and h.264 – only google chrome supports both). therefore, if you wanted to use html5 video while not shutting out a large group of users, you would have to encode your videos in two or even three different versions – h.264 for ie/safari, theora for firefox and opera, and probably also flash for users with no html5. with yesterday’s release, suddenly there is one alternative that gives access to all users except those that use safari. and with opera on the iphone, one can actually reach users on any platform with the same video content. surely many big websites will incorporate h.264 to avoid losing safari/iphone users, but many smaller will not – and apple will once again be in the position of being the platform on which “ordinary stuff” doesn’t work.
besides all that, after steve jobs’ by now infamous invocation of open standards as a part of the reason for dropping flash from the iphone, how is he going to explain not supporting vp8?
(on a side note, it is interesting to ask why microsoft opted to be a part of all this – supposedly they have some patents in the h.264 system, so they have something to lose if that standard fails. my guess is that they just saw a chance to use their classic strategic asset – their size – to hurt apple, their classic foe.)
secondly, the web store. admittedly, this is not such a crushing blow, in the sense that it doesn’t seem likely that either itunes or the app store will be made irrelevant any time soon. but given the importance of these elements in the apple system, just the fact of a credible challenge is huge news. basically, the chrome web store will allow you to buy web applications – and content – for your browser in the same way that you buy apps and content for your phone from the app store (or android market, or ovi store, or any of the other phone-centric systems). the big difference, of course, is this:
“Because web apps listed in the Chrome Web Store are regular web applications, built with standard web tools, they can be used by anyone using a modern browser that supports these web technologies.” (from the store website)
so, while the project is still on the planning stage – due to be launched later this year – it does seem in theory to have disruptive potential. making money of paid web content – that is the holy grail the media industries have been searching for for a while… and while the app store has been an undisputable success, it only has ca. 1% of the world’s population as potential customers. a web store based on open standards will be accessible to everyone equipped with a modern browser – which does not mean the entire world, of course, but something like 10-15% (ballparking it from the wikipedia facts that 26.6% use the internet, and the usage share of IE8 + FF3 + Chrome + Safari + Opera = ca. 63%). so with an installed base of 10-15 times that of the app store, the chrome web store seems like a very interesting proposition – in particular since, in my personal opinion, web apps are getting more and more interesting also for mobile platforms, as an alternative to native apps.
oh, and this is not all about apps and generic web content, either – google is also launching a dedicated music service to compete directly with itunes. ironically, they got it by buying a popular iphone app (and then immediately pulling it from the app store, all in the spirit of openness of course). as they say: if you can’t beat them, buy them – and then beat them.
finally, google has also announced that they are getting into the tv business, using android. technically this also means an expansion of the domain of open source technology, i guess – both because of android, and because the web in itself is an open technology (well, mostly). as someone who basically hasn’t watched non-web tv since obama’s inauguration, i can only say: bring it on! it is the obvious next step, and i can’t see how it can fail. (well ok i can see a hundred ways in which it can fail, but all of them have to do with business practicalities and none with the idea of bringing the web to your tv. 🙂