Google has quietly started to roll out HD video quality for Hangouts as part of a larger move toward open standards that will one day allow the social network to offer video chat in browsers without the need for plug-ins.

The search giant has been seeding the new feature to a number of users over the past few weeks with a full rollout to be completed soon. Specifically, the change involves transitioning hangouts from the H.264 video codec to VP8. The transition from the latter, an open and royalty-free codec released in 2010, should be more or less invisible to the user according to Google vice president of engineering Chee Chew.

While the transition should go unnoticed, the video quality will be greatly improved. Chew said users will noticed the feed will be cleaner and less choppy than before. This should be true both on computers and mobile devices, we’re told. And the timing is just about perfect as Google is also preparing to launch a marketplace to sell services via video called Helpouts. A high quality video stream will no doubt be an asset here.

H.264 simply wasn’t able to process HD streams from, say, 10 participants at the same time as it would have required too much processing power. With the new codec, Google will be able to provide better quality video at lower bit rates, something that could be especially useful over mobile.

This all sounds great, but why did it take Google so long to bring the technology to Hangouts? As Chew put it, the Hangouts team set out to optimize the end user experience first and foremost. This also gave the standard some time to mature organically.