Did Cisco Solve the WebRTC Video Codec Problem?

By Irwin Lazar
On Oct 30, 2013
Wednesday, October 30, 2013

In advance of next week's IETF meeting in Vancouver, this morning Cisco made a rather stunning announcement: To drive adoption of WebRTC around H.264 as the standard video codec, it would not only release an open source module that any developer can use (including its competitors), but it would also commit to paying the royalty fees to MPEG-LA so that browser vendors wouldn’t have to pay it themselves.

First, a bit of history. For all the hype around WebRTC the primary sticking point limiting its usefulness is the lack of a common video codec. Google and Mozilla have rallied around Google’s royalty-free VP8, while Microsoft and Apple have yet to commit to supporting VP8 in Internet Explorer and Safari (not surprising given the competitive dynamic between Apple, Microsoft and Google). And since Microsoft and Apple don’t embed H.264 codecs in their browsers due to the cost of licensing tens of millions of H.264 clients, current WebRTC-based applications only work in Chrome and Firefox. Using them in IE or Safari requires the user to download and install a plug-in, defeating the promise of WebRTC providing a ubiquitous voice, video, and content sharing capability across all browsers without the need for users to manage plug-ins.

VP8 has several other limiting factors. First, the video conferencing industry has largely settled on H.264 for end-points and video software. And, most mobile devices contain hardware optimized for H.264. Thus using VP8 in WebRTC means the need for transcoding back to H.264-based video systems, or lower battery life and higher processor requirements to support VP8-based video conferencing on mobile devices. Finally, VP8 has been under patent infringement assault from Nokia, which has already filed three lawsuits challenging Google’s ownership of VP8 (follow the Foss Patents Blog for details). While Google has successful fought off Nokia challenges so far, there still exists the risk that Nokia wins a pending challenge and VP8 is no longer royalty-free.

So Cisco is in effect saying “we’ll pay the licensing fee and give away the codec” as a means to overcome Apple and Microsoft reluctances to support VP8, and to enable WebRTC applications that easily integrate with existing video systems and can run on H.264-optimized hardware. With Mozilla already agreeing to implement Cisco’s H.264 module the question is now “what will Apple, Google, and Microsoft do?” That remains to be seen. For Cisco’s gamble to pay off, they will have to embrace Cisco’s open source module and embed it into their browsers. But again, competitive dynamics often rule the day. For Google to accept H.264 means making its own codec irrelevant. Microsoft and Cisco are chief competitors in the unified communications space – will Microsoft embrace Cisco’s approach or could it copy Cisco and offer its own H.264 module with it too paying the license fees (and would its H.264 implementation be compatible with Cisco’s?) While these scenarios will play out over the next few months, Cisco has given WebRTC momentum a tremendous shove forward. The next move is in the hands of Apple, Google, and Microsoft.