Certain technologies get “hot” and take over the world. Others emerge as over-hyped but then fade back into obscurity. It’s clear that WebRTC — the evolving group of technology standards for real-time communication over the web — is at one of those crucial turning points.
The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) was expected to reach consensus on an important new component of the WebRTC standard — the video codec — at its recent meeting in Vancouver. But it didn’t, and now the WebRTC movement risks losing momentum.
I’ve been reporting on WebRTC developments for CMSwire.com because the technology holds so much promise. Covered earlier this year on Rayno Report in an interview with Uberconference VP of Technology Brian Peterson, the Web development community is eager to dive into new real-time apps by embedding real-time communications capabilities more widely in Web browsers. Here are two of the recent stories:
Disagreements among large technology vendors with their own large communications businesses have turned out to be a big barrier to the technology, bogging down the IETF in politics. The IETF, failing to reach a decision on the contentious video codec portion of the standard, now faces the potential for fragmented development.
“None of the scenarious are really viaable,” said Irwin Lazar, a Vice President with Nemertes Research, reflecting on the state of WebRTC following the Vancouver meeting. “I’m not confident that we have a good way forward.”
The heart of the conflict has been between Cisco Systems (CSCO) and Google (GOOG), which are vying for competing video codec standards in WebRTC. Cisco has been promoting H.264, a video codec whose licensing is controlled by the private organization MPEG LA and embedded in many enterprise collaboration apps. Google has been favoring VP8, it’s newer, open-sourced video codec.
“The ideal would be for everybody to take the on H.264, because most mobile phones and desktops are H.264,” says Lazar. “But there’s no way Google will give up on VP8.”
Maybe so, but you won’t get to agree on that.
Cisco may have complicated things at the last minute by offering to pay H.264 royalities and submitting it as open-source in a bid to compete with open-sourced VP8. But that may have been enough to add contentino just before the IETF meeting in Vancouver, leading to disagreements on the Committee.
“The big objection to H.264 has been that it has a licensing fee,” Cisco’s VP and CTO of Colloboration, Johnathan Rosenberg, told me several weeks ago. “We have a good solution.”
But Cisco’s move may have further helped conflicted the community because H.264 has never been technically open-source technology, so it’s not clear whether developers can openly take apart the code and build applications like pure open-source technology. The code base is still owned by MPEG LA.
The bottom line? WebRTC is now stalled in committee, and risks splintering up in fragmented development. For example, some Web browsers such as Google’s Chrome and Mozilla’s Firefox will build in both VP8 and H.264 video codec technology, while others will require downloadable plug-ins to enable video communication, poentially confusing users. Microsoft is likely to put off building in WebRTC standards into Internet Explorer because it owns its own collaboration franchise and has plans to integrate Skype into its Lync enterprise collaboration program.
WebRTC, which promised to open up the world of real-time communication on the Web, has now stalled a bit.
“It’s going to make it a lot more complicated for people that want to raise WebRTC applications,” said Lazar.