Google is partnering with video conferencing provider Vidyo to improve the WebRTC video codec, hastening ratification by international standards bodies. Under the agreement, Vidyo will develop a royalty-free scalable video codec extension for the nascent VP9 codec to improve reliability and quality of browser-to-browser video calls.
Early WebRTC video applications have suffered from poor quality and high bandwidth requirements -- as much as 2 Mbps per session. A scalable video codec (SVC) extension would improve video quality and cut bandwidth usage in half.
"SVC does not send anything that cannot be transmitted or cannot be translated to be displayed. It optimizes the amount of data that it sends to get the best resolution possible … for the existing network and endpoint condition," said Henry Dewing, principal analyst at Cambridge, Mass-based Forrester Research Inc.
Bandwidth and quality, however, aren't necessarily stopping WebRTC use, Dewing explained. "There's a question of having all of the participants and standards bodies agree to how it works."
WebRTC video codecs: The VP8 and H.264 debate
WebRTC currently uses the VP8 video codec,* the predecessor to VP9, but not everyone is happy with this decision. H.264, a codec with similar quality and bandwidth savings, is more ubiquitous in today's video and telepresence hardware. VP8-based WebRTC would require a gateway or media router to speak with H.264 endpoints.
"You can find [VP8] in some SIP phones and in some custom applications, but it's really hard to find VP8 hardware support in cell phones and hard phones," said Alexey Aylarov, WebRTC board member and CEO of Zingaya Inc., a Palo Alto-based provider of click-to-call services.
However, MPEG LA, the firm that controls video standards licensing, charges patent fees to vendors using the H.264 codec. The firm waived royalty fees in 2010 for vendors offering free Internet video to users (also known as Internet Broadcast AVC Video). However, the license term ends the last day of 2015, and browser vendors don't want to risk having to pay, or worse yet, make end users pay, to search the Web with WebRTC-enabled browsers.
"The [video codec] controversy is probably the biggest issue with WebRTC so far," Aylarov said. "Half of the [WebRTC] Working Group sees that the WebRTC video codec should be an open codec like VP8 … and the other half says it's not very important; it's more important that the codec be compatible with other devices and endpoints."
Several video vendors debated the WebRTC video codec in a recent Wainhouse Reasearch Collaborate! webinar and believed interoperability to be the main issue. "Businesses don't care whether it's H.264; they just want [video] to be interoperable," said Michael Helmbrecht, vice president of video solutions for Austin-based LifeSize.
"Eventually, something's going to have to win out," said Rob Arnold, senior industry analyst at San Antonio-based Frost & Sullivan Inc. "I think right now SVC is looking more like a transition technology than a long-term technology. But I don't know that those companies that have been working with SVC are going to make a wholesale shift in development focus from H.264 to VP8. [Though] it has a lot of support, it's been primarily Google-driven."
The Google-Vidyo partnership
Vidyo has been the video engine behind Google Hangouts since its inception, but only recently announced this publically.
Vidyo uses an implementation of H.264 with its own proprietary technology, but plans to contribute its SVC knowledge and intellectual property to the VP9 codec submission that Google will make to relevant standards bodies for standardization, said Joan Vandermate, Vidyo's vice president of product marketing.
"It will be the same quality offered in our enterprise-class offerings, with no plug-in added for a consumer," she said.
"Some folks may misinterpret the Hangouts move to VP8 as a concern or problem with Vidyo technology, especially since it times with our push to HD," said Chee Chaw, vice president of engineering at Google. "We technically could have gone to HD with them, but given the investment Google has made in VP8, it made sense to make the switch for us together," he said.
A royalty-free contribution will benefit Vidyo because the vendor profits from connecting multi-point video conferences from disparate endpoints. Since WebRTC essentially turns every browser into an endpoint, more people will need the video bridging infrastructure that Vidyo offers, Dewing said. "Anything they can do to encourage more people to use more video on more different endpoints will drive their business model. … They're not just being good guys. They're actually trying to advance the overall industry and their share of it."
WebRTC standardization and adoption
WebRTC is not yet ratified, but is expected to be standardized by the Internet Engineering Task Force and World Wide Web Consortium standards bodies in the first half of 2014. While Google, Mozilla and Opera use WebRTC today, accounting for roughly 80% of browser usage, the pre-standardized protocol is far from ubiquitous. The biggest barrier to WebRTC adoption is getting the remaining browser vendors -- Microsoft and Apple -- on board.
"[The Web browser feud] is a classic battle of the titans in the tech industry," Dewing said. If enough organizations and vendors implement WebRTC, he believes these browser vendors will eventually come on board. "Google and Cisco appear to be cooperating, and when you get those two cooperating on something like [WebRTC], it will drag a lot of the market with it," Dewing said.
Proponents of the technology include startups like Twilio, TenHands and Plivo -- as well as video conferencing giants like Cisco, Alcatel-Lucent and Avaya. Arnold said this much momentum "gives a lot of confidence to end-user organizations to at least begin planning or seriously looking at how they might adopt WebRTC."
*Correction: This article originally stated that WebRTC currently uses the VP8 SVC. As of 9/17/13, it currently uses the VP8 video codec without SVC.
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