Google backs open codecs for WebRTC

The WebRTC projects re-ignites the battle over how to format HTML5 video

Google engineers have volunteered the company's VP8 video codec for an emerging standards project, called WebRTC, that could provide a real time communications protocol for the Web.

"We believe that the WebRTC effort represents an unprecedented opportunity to establish a new real-time communications platform," wrote Justin Uberti, Google's tech lead for WebRTC, on the WebRTC development e-mail list. "Therefore, we believe the sole mandatory-to-implement video codec in WebRTC should be VP8, the only viable royalty-free option."

Google acquired and open sourced the VP8 codec, which is used to compress and decompress video streams, when it purchased On2 in 2010.

Started in 2011, WebRTC Working Group (Web Real-Time Communication) started authoring a pending HTML5 standard, as well as an accompanying open source framework, for running real-time communications across the Internet, such as telephone calls, video share and peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing. Today, such services require the provider to create the capability from scratch, or borrow from commercial solutions.

The W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) and the IETF (Internet Engineering Task Force) are collaborating on the effort.

For Google, the need to use open technologies was paramount in this effort, because it would allow anyone to use the technology without prior approval. "This approach has worked wonders for the [W]eb, and we hope for the same result with WebRTC," Uberti wrote. "Given the ability to deliver a royalty-free platform with no compromises on quality, we see no reason to include mandatory royalty-bearing codecs."

Other participants have their doubts though. A representative from mobile equipment provider Ericsson voted for the more widely used H.264 codec as the mandatory codec, or at least include H.264 as one of mandatory codecs.

H.264, often packaged in the MPEG-4 container, is used by Apple, Microsoft, Adobe Flash and others. Chip manufacturers such as Intel and Texas Instruments offer processors or add-on chips to speed H.264 decoding, thereby making the format appealing to power-sensitive mobile device manufacturers.

Use of H.264, however, requires developers to license the technology, which Google Mozilla, and others have railed against. "Non-free MTI codecs would be a massive problem for Linux/BSD [distributions] and other open source projects, as well as Mozilla," noted Mozilla WebRTC tech lead Randell Jesup.

In a sense, Google's stance is part of a larger split in the Web community over which video codecs should be included as part of the official HTML5 standard. Here, Google has offered VP8, and has gotten support from Mozilla and Opera, while Microsoft, Apple and others have put their weight behind H.264.

At the O'Reilly Open Source Conference, held earlier this month in Portland, Oregon, Scott Davis, head of the HTML5 consulting company Thirsty Head, predicted that the Web may never settle on a single codec. Just as the Web supports a variety of image formats -- such as JPEG, GIF, and PNG -- so too will it host multiple video formats. Website developers will just have to add a few additional lines to their page code to deliver the correct format based on the browser being used.

"This is the solution that will allow you play HTML5 video on every browser," Davis said of writing the extra code. "You write it once, you template it away and never think about it."

WebRTC developers plan to discuss the issue further during its meeting at IETF 84, held this week in Vancouver.

Joab Jackson covers enterprise software and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Joab on Twitter at @Joab_Jackson. Joab's e-mail address is Joab_Jackson@idg.com

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