WebRTC Expert Feature

November 01, 2013

Cisco H.264 Open Source: Is this the End or the Beginning of the WebRTC Codec Wars?


Bring up the topic of included or mandatory video codecs for WebRTC and you will get lots of positions and rhetoric. The proponents of VP8 argue that it is royalty free and the right way to create explosive growth because the MPEG-LA requires anyone shipping over 100K units of H.264 to pay a royalty license. On the other hand, proponents of H.264 argue that it is a superior codec and that almost all devices already include it and many device mobile vendors (including Apple) have optimized their hardware to accelerate H.264. The VP8 side argues the differences are minuscule and that, while the device may have an H.264 license from MPEG-LA, that license does not extend to the use of a separate soft codec in the same device.

Cisco may have just opened the door to bringing the VP8 versus H.264 debate to a close. According to   Rowan Trollope , senior vice president and general manager, Collaboration Technology Group, "We plan to open-source our H.264 codec, and to provide it as a binary module that can be downloaded for free from the Internet. Cisco will not pass on our MPEG LA licensing costs for this module, and based on the current licensing environment, this will effectively make H.264 free for use in WebRTC." And Mozilla is working with Cisco to put the codec into Firefox, effectively assuring that a significant percentage of the WebRTC browsers will have H.264. And any other app developer can download the open source code and use it royalty free.

This announcement has a number of impacts. It removes a key barrier for Apple if WebRTC supports H.264, as Apple can take advantage of the hardware acceleration in iPhones and iPads with WebRTC. Similarly for Microsoft, it now integrates directly with Lync and Skype. It also removes the need for transcoding in a peer to peer connection from an H.264 SIP video device to a WebRTC browser. And it opens up using any of the existing h.264 media servers with WebRTC though a new control plane. For Cisco specifically, it dramatically reduces the issues with integrating WebRTC into the hundreds of thousands of Cisco/Tandberg video systems out there, with this the integration can be managed without transcoding or modifying the end point to include a VP8 codec.

Obviously there are some key issues. Do we continue with VP8 also? If both are "generally" available in all peer endpoints, which will be used? If the video session is integrating to an existing H.264 only device, then H.264 is the logical choice, but if it is only WebRTC devices, will VP8 still be used?   These are a few questions, as is the "Chrome" question. While Google originally had H.264 support in Chrome, it has melted away as VP8 and the releases became more mature. Will Google add H.264 back into Chrome?

Finally, this is not the end of the Codec discussions. On the horizon are H.265 and VP9. In this arena, the same issues exist, which is "better" and how licenses and royalties are managed. It is becoming clear that the concept of licensing codecs on software is probably not reasonable. At the WebRTC Conference and Expo in Atlanta the concept of having a device license that would extend to all apps and their codecs running on that device was discussed. In this way the Intellectual Property owners get remuneration for their IP, but the user doesn't pay for 15 licenses for different apps (though this may go down with WebRTC and HTML5 if apps are just JavaScript using the browser framework).    Work is going on now to bring VP9 and H.265 closer. In fact, Vidyo is working on SVC for VP9. 

At the WebRTC Conference and Expo in Santa Clara Nov 19-21, representatives from the major vendors, the UCIF, and the IMTC will discuss video futures. Also, Cullen Jennings from Cisco and Eric Rescorla of Mozilla will be discussing the current standards and have indicated they may have an update on H.264 Open Source activity.




Edited by Stefania Viscusi




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