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Preparing for IETF-mandated WebRTC video codecs

Expert Tsahi Levent-Levi said enterprises will face challenges in the IETF decision to require VP8 and H.264 codecs for WebRTC video in browsers.

I have written at length about the winners and losers in the Internet Engineering Task Force's (IETF) decision to require browser makers to implement VP8 and H.264 codecs for WebRTC video.

But in focusing on vendors and developers, I forgot to mention the impact on enterprises that adopt Web Real-Time Communications (WebRTC) as the technology for embedding voice, text and video communications in Web browsers.

For enterprises, the IETF decision brings a number of challenges, but before I address them, it's worth providing some background on both codecs.

H.264 is used to compress the media we consume almost everywhere -- from the videos we record on our smartphones to the high-end telepresence video conferencing systems we use at work. It is also an expensive codec that incurs royalty payments for its patents. The successor of H.264 is going to be a video codec called H.265.

VP8 is relatively new. It was conceived at On2 Technologies, a company acquired by Google a few years ago. Technically speaking, it is comparatively similar to H.264 with a smaller ecosystem. Its aim is to get around the royalty payments associated today with video codecs. VP8 has a successor of its own, VP9.

If you are using video in the enterprise, more often than not you are using H.264, which provides interoperability and connectivity to legacy systems that are already in use. Connecting existing video conferencing systems to a Web browser will be less of a hassle with H.264, as it reduces the need for expensive video transcoding.

However, in also mandating VP8, the IETF has created an environment in which H.264 may not be needed at all. Questions enterprises will want answers to include:

  1. Will Microsoft implement VP8 in Internet Explorer or only focus on H.264?
  2. If and when Apple decides to join, will it go for VP8 in Safari or just ignore it and implement only H.264? Will it introduce H.265, as it did for its FaceTime service?
  3. Will Google add H.264 to Chrome or focus most of its efforts on getting VP9 into the browser?

Without knowing the intent of browser makers, it's difficult for an enterprise to decide on which codec to focus their efforts. Should they standardize on VP8 or should they standardize on H.264? Come 2016, which video codec will be more prevalent in browsers?

There is no easy answer to these questions. My suggestion would be to focus on H.264 only if there is a lot of legacy involved. Current market dynamics are leaning towards the free video codec option that is VP8 (and later VP9).

As WebRTC is still evolving, changes are sure to occur. Over the next couple of years expect the migration from WebRTC 1.0 to WebRTC 1.1, which will introduce more flexible APIs for handling media streams. Also prepare for the introduction of VP9, and maybe H.265, as a better video codec in the browser.

Enterprises should prepare for continued investment in WebRTC-based services in the coming years. Treating WebRTC deployments as a singular, one time investment is bound to fail.

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