Despite my knee-jerk pro-Apple response, I believe that Google is correct in stating that WebM is the better political choice for Web standards. It is open in the sense that there’s no licensing fee and Google has no ability to institute one. It is not an open standard insofar as the standard does not belong to an impartial standards body, which is slightly problematic, but practically speaking it’s not a huge deal. H.264 does, FWIW, belong to such a body. But it’s not free to license, and that is again the more important issue.
WebM may not be the better choice from a legal point of view, in that we don’t know if it’s encumbered by patents. It would be nice if Google would indemnify people using WebM from patent lawsuits, but I don’t think it’s reasonable to require them to do so. Google doesn’t have to do your legal work for you, even if it would be nice if they did. Anyhow, I am not competent to have an opinion on the legal issues, so “we don’t know.” If I needed to make a corporate decision about this I’d pay for a lawyer to tell me things.
Technically speaking I don’t care. Web video is not the place where I demand top-notch video quality. H.264 might be better; even if it is, it’s not going to matter 99% of the time.
Now the fun part. Google’s stance, while correct, is in direct conflict with their Flash support. Google’s statement: “Adobe Flash Player is the most widely used web browser plug-in. It enables a wide range of applications and content on the Internet, from games, to video, to enterprise apps.” So, yes, this is true. Likewise, H.264 is the most widely used Web video format, which enables a wide range of video on the Internet. You’re either making decisions based on usage or not.
Which makes me suspect that Google is, with WebM, making the right decision for the wrong reasons. This only makes me about 50% happy.
Edit: this post makes the excellent point that Flash does share one key characteristic with WebM: namely, it’s free to distribute. However, Adobe has not to my knowledge guaranteed this in perpetuity.