WebRTC hammers out compromise on video codec standards

Browsers must support H.264 and VP8 as part of real-time communications effort

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Credit: iStockphoto

Proponents of WebRTC, the Web standard for real-time communications via browsers, are clearing a long-standing hurdle the effort has faced, with the choice of two different video codecs.

For purposes of WebRTC backing, browsers must now support both H.264 and VP8, said Andreas Gal, CTO at Mozilla, in a blog post Sunday. "Both codecs have merits. On the one hand, VP8 can be deployed without having to pay patent royalties. On the other hand, H.264 has a huge installed base in existing systems and hardware," Gal said. "That is why we worked with Cisco to develop their free OpenH264 plug-in and as of October this year, Firefox supports both H.264 and VP8 for WebRTC."

The potential of WebRTC has been constrained by the lack of a video codec, even as audio codecs – G.711 and Opus – were chosen more than two years ago, Gal said.

"WebRTC is one of the most exciting things to happen to the Web in years. It has the potential to bring instant voice and video calling to anyone with a browser, finally unshackling us from proprietary plug-ins and installed apps," Gal said. "Firefox, Chrome, and Opera already support WebRTC, and Microsoft recently announced future support."

The compromise, Gal said, allows advocates to move forward with confidence in WebRTC interoperability while allowing people who cannot support one of the codecs to still be WebRTC-compatible. "This is an unmitigated win for users and Web application developers, as it provides broad interoperability within the WebRTC ecosystem."

Mozilla, meanwhile, has been working on the Daala video codec, which attempts to avoid patent issues around codecs while also maintaining higher quality than royalty-constrained codecs. The company hopes to contribute the technology to IETF for standardization.

An analyst said the World Wide Web Consortium has high hopes for WebRTC. "I've spoken to W3C, and they see WebRTC as a major paradigm shift for the open Web," said Michael Azoff, analyst at Ovum. "From what the OpenH264 guys are saying, their project will make supporting H.264 free to use.

Among other details of the WebRTC video codec plan, nonbrowser endpoints must support both codecs, but if either codec becomes "definitely royalty-free" with no outstanding credible non-royalty-free patent claims, then endpoints only need to support that codec, Gal said. WebRTC-compatible endpoints can support either codec, both, or neither.

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