A closely followed Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) meeting in Vancouver last week took an anticlimactic and mysterious turn. Committee members failed to reach a consensus on an important component of the new web-based communications standards called WebRTC.

RTC stands for Real Time Communication. The stakes are high because several large technology vendors with large communications businesses went into the meeting jostling for position of their respective video streaming technologies.

Learning Opportunities

The Players

Cisco Systems and Google, in particular, faced off on their competing standards for the video codec —the underlying code for streaming video in real time —  in WebRTC. Sources familiar with the proceedings reported IETF members needed more time to work out the economic impact the various video codec selections would have on developers. 

WebRTC is an important standard that will put real time audio and video communication directly into web browsers, starting with Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox.  Embedding technology such as high-quality voice and video codecs into browsers could accelerate the development of collaboration and communications apps by lowering the cost of development.
Google has been pushing to include its own VP8 video codec in the WebRTC standard. But Cisco is pushing for the older H.264 video codec, which it has built into many of its products. Just before the meeting, Cisco made the interesting move to absorb to open-source the H.264 codec. That may have thrown some new questions into the mix because Google's video codec is available for free.

Internal Politics

Some observers said internal politics may have complicated the process and led the IETF to postpone any big decisions.
"Producing industry standards is never a smooth process and producing the WebRTC standard is no exception," said Brian Riggs, a principal analyst with research firm Ovum. "Cisco threw a wrench into the machine when it offered to foot the bill for H.264 royalties. It changes the WebRTC cost model if H.264 is chosen as the preferred WebRTC video codec. So the IETF needs more than a few days to work out what it really means and how developers will be affected."
Further delay in the standards means slower time to market for new applications.  Technology companies and developers are waiting to figure out the development path and timeline to build more robust communications apps into browsers. The selection of the video codec technology will alter their strategies and costs, depending on the final standard.
The details of the meeting were difficult to obtain. The IETF, an international standards body, has yet to publish the minutes. After inquiring with three separate IETF members, I received a link to hours of audio recording of the entire week-long meeting. The recording was in HTML5 and used a codec that was not compatible with my browser (Apple Safari). A bit ironic, don't you think? 

Keeping Quiet

Several companies I called, including Google and Mozilla, declined to comment. But Jonathan Rosenberg, vice president and CTO of collaboration for Cisco, told me in an email:

We’re disappointed that the IETF failed to reach consensus. We plan on fully continuing our initiatives in making H.264 available and working with Mozilla in enabling H.264 support in Firefox. In parallel, we will continue to participate in the IETF processes in the hopes that consensus can be reached in the near future."

The delay will stymie technologists and developers who want to push forward with web-based communications apps.  WebRTC is already behind where many developers thought it would originally be. It was expected to be finalized by the end of 2013.