Mozilla will add H.264 to Firefox as Cisco makes eleventh-hour push for WebRTC’s future

Cisco (s CSCO) staged a major coup Wednesday by announcing a new initiative that is meant to turn H.264 into the default codec for real-time communication on the web: the company open-sourced its H.264 codec implementation and also announced the release of a plugin that will allow third-party developers to use H.264 without the need to pay any licensing costs. One of the first apps to make use of this is none other than Mozilla’s Firefox.

Mozilla CTO Brendan Eich told me Tuesday that it intends to add H.264 to Firefox in the first half of 2014. For Mozilla, this concludes a gradual acceptance of H.264 over open video formats. But Cisco’s initiative, and its cooperation with Mozilla, has implications far beyond Firefox, as it could shape the future of voice and video chat across devices and platforms.

A last push for H.264 before next week’s IETF meeting

Cisco’s announcement comes in the midst of a heated debate about the technology that is going to power this kind of real-time communication. Almost everyone in the industry agrees that this future will be based on an emerging standard called WebRTC that allows users to communicate across devices without the need to download any software. What the driving forces behind WebRTC can’t agree on is a common video codec.

Google has proposed to turn its own royalty-free VP8 codec into the default technology for video chatting. Companies like Ericsson (S ADR) and Cisco on the other hand have long made the case for turning H.264 into the default codec for WebRTC. The advantage of that choice would be that H.264 is more widely adopted and supported by legacy devices; the disadvantage is that using H.264 could require companies to pay licensing fees to patent pool outlet MPEG LA.

Cisco’s message to developers now is: “Don’t worry about those fees; we’ll foot the bill.” The company will compile a freely downloadable component for a variety of platforms and allow developers to add it to its own apps. Any fees for the use of the format will be directly paid by Cisco.

Cisco is pressing this issue a mere week before the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) is set to convene in Vancouver, where the WebRTC working group is trying to finally agree on a default codec for WebRTC. “We think this will help to push the edge over to H.264,” said Cisco’s Collaboration CTO Jonathan Rosenberg during an interview Tuesday.

For Firefox, H.264 support has been a long time coming

Mozilla has already been gradually moving towards acceptance of H.264 in recent years. The foundation initially rejected H.264 as patent-encumbered and incompatible with the spirit of open source software. But Mozilla eventually accepted H.264 for video playback on mobile devices because there was little alternative after Adobe stopped supporting Flash(s adbe) for mobile phones and tablets. Mozilla also started to support H.264 to some Windows(s msft) versions of Firefox by using the operating system’s native support for the codec.

Mozilla’s partnership with Cisco goes much further by actually adding H.264 directly to the browser on all of its platforms, albeit with through a trick: the exact details of the implementation are yet to be determined, but it’s likely that the browser will make contact with Cisco’s servers when users first install it to download the component. Kind of like Flash, except that it won’t constantly bug the user, and that media playback will happen natively in a web environment. “It’s not a foreign object in the browser,” explained Rosenberg.

Eich picked up on the plugin analogy, telling me in an email:

“We also support plugins, which support patent-encumbered formats including H.264. We’ve never rejected plugins on this basis. Mozilla’s mission must be upheld by competitive products. Competitive products may require things we view as far from ideal, if not overtly against our mission.”

He went on to say that, ideally, Mozilla would have liked to see a different outcome:

“Although H.264 will become available to Firefox users thanks to Cisco’s move, the codec still comes with restrictive licensing that we believe is not in the long-term best interests of users and the Web, compared to the situation with a truly free and unrestricted codec.”

The big question: how is Google going to respond?

After Tuesday’s announcement, all eyes are going to be on Google(s GOOG), which has been the biggest opponent of making H.264 the default format for video communication on the web. And it’s unlikely that Google will change its position on this issue any time soon. The company has invested heavily into VP8, and started to switch its own Hangouts video chat system from H.264 to VP8 earlier this summer. “I doubt their minds will be changed by this,” agreed Rosenberg.

The other unresolved question is how this is going to affect Microsoft. The software giant came out last year with a competing proposal for the WebRTC standard that would have left it up to developers to devise which codec they’re going to use. That being said, Microsoft has also been a supporter of H.264, so this new push could possibly unite everyone except Google and further delay a standard. But Rosenberg was quick to point out that Mozilla is going to implement H.264 regardless of any IETF consensus. In the end, he speculated, it may be up to the market to decide.

What does the future look like, and what’s in it for Cisco?

Cisco’s move may put more pressure on companies to favor H.264, but others are already thinking ahead. Google has started to add VP9, its next-generation video codec, to Chrome, while others favor H.265. Meanwhile, Mozilla has been working on a project called Daala that promises to outdo both VP9 and H.264. Eich told me that Daala may one day offer developers and browser makers alike a way to truly embrace open formats for video streaming and real-time communication. “Our goal is to leapfrog H.265 and VP9, building a codec that will be both higher-quality and free of patent encumberance,” he said.

Rosenberg, on the other hand, argued that H.264 will matter for a long time to come. “We are talking many, many years,” he told me. That also explains why Cisco is so interested in making it the default format for real-time communication. Both with its expensive hardware-based video-conferencing products and its own Jabber client, Cisco is building H.264-based solutions for the enterprise – and it wants to assure its customers that these products will continue to work and offer further interoperability in the future. Footing the bill for H.264 licenses may be a relatively small price to pay to keep Cisco relevant in this space.

Image courtesy of Flickr user  Tsahi Levent-Levi.