All this foofaw over video codec support in browsers is most important in the mobile device arena, where more HTML5-based applications are coming to the fore, and where the browser landscape is much different than on the desktop.

“It’s interesting that Google would make this kind of move considering Chrome is not even on any mobile devices yet,” said Michael Mullany, vice president of products at Sencha, which makes an HTML5 SDK for building mobile applications for mobile browsers. “The clear openness argument of Google is a bit disingenuous. It’s about commoditizing stuff where the competitors have an advantage,” he said.

The dominant mobile browser right now is Apple’s Mobile Safari, followed by Mobile Android. Both are based on the WebKit open-source browser engine, to which Apple and Google both contribute. Firefox will first ship in a Samsung device announced at the recent CES in Las Vegas.

Apple bakes H.264 support into Mobile Safari. “It’s efficient, good on battery life and there’s patent safety there,” even if Apple has to pay royalty fees, said Mullany. “The last thing Apple wants is a ‘stop ship’ injunction because of some patent.”

Mullany estimated that it costs in the neighborhood of US$15 million per year in royalties for an unlimited number of H.264 decoders, and the patents won’t expire until 2025.

The practical result of these machinations is that developers will have to dual-encode videos and serve them up with a mixture of Flash and HTML5, Mullany said. “They’d use the H.264 codec for iPods, iPhones and Androids, and then serve up via the video tag in Flash through a legacy browser, or write to WebM for Chrome and deliver in Flash,” he explained.

With device turnover such much faster in the mobile world than the desktop world, there is less need to support legacy browsers. “No one writes to the original iPhone anymore,” Mullany said.

For companies with large video libraries, transcoding video is not a trivial task, Mullany said. “Companies will need increased storage for two copies of each video, and a lot of developer time will be taken away. It’s just a hassle,” he said.