Right now, a bunch of nerds on the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) in Vancouver are making big decisions about the next big wave in web communications standards. And these decisions will have a big impact on some of the largest technology companies, for many years to come.
Real Time Communication
The IETF is hashing out some of the final details of WebRTC, the standard that will enable real time video calling in a web browser, among other things. This includes a decision on a controversial video codec standard, which has flared up in a skirmish between Cisco and Google.
WebRTC stands for Web Real Time Communication (RTC). When it's finalized and starts to be deployed over the next year it will affect nearly all of the technology giants, including Apple, Cisco, Google and Microsoft, among many others. It includes a lot of features, but the headline item will be enabling you to make real time voice and video calls from a web browser such as Google Chrome or Firefox Mozilla. See ya, Skype?
Because deploying real time video and voice calling software in web browsers will have the effect of democratizing and expanding real time voice and video calling in standard web software, the politics are already red hot. Not only does this threaten proprietary platforms such as Skype and Apple's FaceTime, but it opens up the potential for a whole new generation of open collaboration tools to be built into a web browser.
For this reason, many technology firms are lining up with strong opinions — or are at least a little nervous — about WebRTC. Google and Mozilla really like it. Cisco kind of likes it. Microsoft isn't really sure it likes it at all and Apple has been pretty much silent.
The Old and the New
This week's IETF meeting is expected to decide which video codec to include in the WebRTC standard — the older, but more legacy-friendly H.264 backed by Cisco or the more aggressive, Google-favored VP8. This is symbolic of the huge technology implications that WebRTC for large technology companies as it is deployed in the next year.
"Google opened up the codec. Cisco hates Google's codec. And Apple's ignoring the codec," said Brian Riggs, Unified Communications (UC) analyst with research firm Ovum, explaining how the various vendors were lining up their strategies. "All of the vendors are squabbling over the underlying technology base."
With Google having given away VP8, its free video codec technology, Cisco made a last-ditch effort to shore up support for H.264 in WebRTC. Just last week it made its version of H.264 avaible as open source, and agreed to absorb the licensing costs.
Who Wants What?
While Cisco says it supports WebRTC, it really wants H.264 to be a part of the standard, because Cisco and its clients have invested a lot of money in H.264. They want to make sure existing Cisco infrastructure works with WebRTC.
"The standards are there to facilitate interoperability," said Jonathan Rosenberg, vice president and chief technology officer of Cisco's Collaboration unit. "We've been strong supporters of WebRTC. We were one of the folks that initiated this effort. It's core to what we believe in. We feel that the technology that should be built in a way that it works in a way it exists today. The Internet is full of H.264. There is a lot of that on the Internet."
Ovum's Riggs says the battle is not so much about the past but the future of Internet video communication. H.264's successor, H.265, is already in development. A victory for VP8 would put more power in the hands of Google, which distributes VP8 freely, and it will likely kill momentum for H.265.
"Cisco's pushing H.264, but it's old-school and it's starting to lose its relevance because it's been around for so long," says Riggs.
Just the Start
The video codec, however, is just the beginning of what are likely to be huge impacts of WebRTC, which threatens a lot of established businesses, such as Skype. For example, Microsoft, which owns Skype, has not even said when it will support WebRTC in its Internet Explorer browser, even though Google and Mozilla have said they will aggressively roll out WebRTC into their respective browsers, Chrome and Firefox.
So, the video codec decision is only the beginning of what will be a long and fascinating strategic battle with this important web standard. Tomorrow, in a continuing look at WebRTC, we'll look at the long-term implications for collaboration and software vendors.