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November 11, 2013

Battle of the Codecs: Is VP8 or H.264 Better for WebRTC?

It may sound like a plotline straight out of terrible science fiction, but indeed, Web-based real-time communication (WebRTC) is about to play host to a fierce battle that may well ultimately define just how WebRTC works in the coming days. More specifically, it's a battle over codecs, and which of two front-runners—H.264 or VP8—will ultimately prove the codec of choice.

Interestingly, the battle between H.264 and VP8 is a battle of degrees, and not very many of said degrees, either. Given the same bitrate, the two codecs' performance is so close together that it's almost impossible to notice. So what's with the battle in the first place?

Some call it a matter of politics, really, as companies champion favorite codecs. Google is backing up VP8, though it's not actually as widely used as Google itself would like to maintain, according to reports. Many video conferencing systems at the enterprise level stick with H.264, and given that there's already a roadmap in the works toward getting H.265 into play, it would suggest that VP8 really isn't that big a draw. Perhaps worse for VP8, there's the issue of transcoding that comes into play, a processor-intensive task that can increase latency and drop video quality, so going with H.264 would make some sense as less transcoding would need to be done overall.

In perhaps an even bigger blow to Google's support of VP8, blogger Tsahi Levent-Levi turned directly to Google and searched for both “H.264 codec implementation” and “VP8 codec implementation.” In terms of the results Google returned, vastly more information was available on H.264 codec implementation than its VP8 counterpart: H.264 returned about 15.5 million results. VP8 couldn't even clear a single million, instead bringing in just about 205,000 results. That shows that the H.264 ecosystem is actually quite a bit larger than its counterpart, suggesting better numbers available to develop for that platform. Reports suggest that the H.264 codec's development has been around for quite some time, as evidenced by that sheer number of search results. VP8 is also somewhat behind when it comes to hardware support, as many hardware sources are focusing on H.264. Intel's Ivy Bridge processor, many set-top boxes and the newest smartphones are all focused on H.264.

Looking at that might suggest that VP8 may as well pack up and go, but it has some distinct advantages of its own, particularly, patents. While VP8 is a comparative newcomer, it's also much easier to work with in terms of patents. VP8 is available on a free patent license from Google and Google alone, while H.264 is packed with patents from a host of companies, including MPEG-LA. That makes VP8 a much less expensive development alternative, and thus attractive for developers.

So who has the edge in the great battle of the codecs? It would seem that H.264 has the edge going into things, but VP8 is still a comparative newcomer and backed by one of the most potent forces in technology today. It's clearly going to take time, and a lot of work, to make VP8 a major name on par with H.264, but considering how much is at stake here, and the sheer power of the forces involved, we could be looking at a major fight still to come.

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Edited by Rachel Ramsey
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