Open voice and video standard bogged as the big boys squabble

Nov 20, 2013

WebRTC is seen as a slightly nerdy subject to tackle, but shouldn’t be. Its implications, if it gets off the ground, are actually quite profound. If the protocols become standard and are supported in browsers and embedded in mobile devices (tablets, phones, wrist watches even) it means that voice and video comms can be instigated between users on an ad hoc basis. No more call ‘set-up’ - that hurried exchange of texts or emails that today must usually prelude an IP voice or video ‘call’.

Instead, doing a one-on-one video or voice exchange will just be a natural, ‘clickable’ facility available to you, as a user, at all sorts of random junctures. No doubt the concern will then become how to make yourself ‘unavailable’ so you don’t get pounced on by both friend and foe as you make your way across the Web. That, though, is a problem for another day because currently there’s a large spanner in the gearbox. The standard is at stand-off.

Cisco and Google are pushing different video codecs (coder/decoder software - the most critical part of the standard). Cisco wants H.264. It’s older but of course it’s already at work in many of Cisco’s video apps. Google has gone to the trouble of open sourcing VP8 which it claims will be the best solution both technically and in IPR terms - no nasty lawsuits, although this is disputed. Microsoft, which of course has bought market leader Skype and has Internet explorer is not keen on supporting both codecs in its browser because it might confuse users.

The focus today, given the heavy-hitting participants, seems to be on browser poliltics, but it’s important not to think of this as a predominantly browser issue. Consultant Dean Bubley, who has closely followed and produced reports on WebRCS for about three years now, says much of the WebRTC action will be outside the browser. He projects that by the end of 2016 (if the roadblocks are removed) there will be 3 billion devices that will support WebRCS ‘outside’ the browser. And there will be 1.6 billion people actually using WebRTC in one form or another by the same time.

At the moment though, there is a standoff and no agreement on the way forward… a sort of technical fiscal cliff, if you will. There is no doubt that all the participants want the standard to succeed as it will beneift all their business models, making it much easier for Skype users to set up a call, easier for Cisco’s collaboration applications to easily support participants on different platforms, possible for users of any browser to get onto a Google hangout and so on.

So don’t be surprised if a solution is suddently found and pulled from the hat.

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