What Cisco’s move to open source H.264 means for mobile WebRTC — and what it doesn’t

Cisco last week said it will essentially take H.264 open source, vowing to pay $6.5 million a year in licensing fees for the video codec to provide developers with freely usable version for WebRTC (Web Real-Time Communication) purposes. Cisco was joined in its support for H.264 by Mozilla, which announced it will use the codec in its Firefox browser.VP8 v H264

As my colleague Janko Rodgers noted, Cisco’s announcement came just days before this week’s meeting of the Internet Engineering Task Force, which is set to decide which codec will be anointed as a standard component of WebRTC. Cisco obviously hopes to entice the IETF to choose H.264 by eliminating the licensing obligations that mean costly headaches for developers. But Google quickly extinguished any hope of industry solidarity behind a single codec when it reaffirmed its commitment to its own VP8 codec, which is license-free.

A quick recap: The tremendous promise of WebRTC in mobile

As I wrote last year, WebRTC is an HTML5 API that enables the transmission of multimedia and other data between browsers on various kinds of devices. It essentially enables developers to add native VoIP to the browser for uses such as voice calling, video chat and P2P file sharing without plugins. WebRTC is aimed at helping developers build highly sophisticated web-based apps that integrate voice and video in ways that might otherwise be impossible. And because those apps are web-based, WebRTC allows developers to build a single version rather than creating one for each operating system across phones, tablets and PCs. Meanwhile, consumers don’t have to download proprietary software to use those apps.

It’s no surprise, then, that WebRTC – like any technology that offers hope of “write once, run anywhere” (WORA) functionality – has generated a deafening buzz. TechRadar earlier this year called it the future of online communications, VentureBeat said last year that it will unquestionably change the web, and Network Computing predicts it will unlock mobile unified communications potential. And ABI Research recently estimated 4.7 billion mobile WebRTC devices will be in use by 2018.

Why the IETF’s decision matters

But while WebRTC may indeed prove to be a game-changer, I think much of that hype is premature. Standardized protocols for the technology have yet to be established, after all, and some key industry players like Apple and Microsoft have yet to throw their support behind it. And as analyst Dean Bubley points out in this insightful post, the IETF’s decision regarding a mandatory codec for video could be a big sticking point for WebRTC in mobile. WebRTC on desktops will be primarily browser-based, but Bubley argues that on smartphones and tablets it will be primarily embedded into native apps or the actual operating systems. That will be particularly true for iOS, he writes, unless Apple begins to support WebRTC in mobile Safari:

“That means that WebRTC on mobile (especially iOS) probably cannot easily exploit Cisco’s H.264 offer. There needs to be a way for either standalone app developers to get access to iOS’ existing H.264 (and iPhone hardware acceleration is not currently allowed under present APIs) or else there needs to be “BYOcoded” with the app…. In other words, Cisco’s kind offer will be irrelevant for most mobile implementations of WebRTC. That doesn’t mean Cisco is being duplicitous here – just that it cannot, by itself, influence those forms of distribution and use of H.264, especially on iOS.”

Bubley opines that the IETF’s best option, then, is to choose both H.264 and VP8, and to signal its intent to support next-generation versions of both codecs (H.265 and VP9, respectively). The worst possible move would be make one of the two the exclusive mandatory codec for WebRTC, eliminating any flexibility for developers. Supporting both codecs certainly wouldn’t guarantee that WebRTC lives up to its potential in mobile, providing the WORA capability developers have long dreamt of. For WebRTC’s mobile prospects, though, it would be a big step in the right direction.