The long-running video codec debate has, without a doubt, been the biggest open issue in the WebRTC standards effort.
In a surprise announcement last week, Cisco introduced a mechanism through which H.264 could be used in WebRTC browser implementations free from MPEG-LA’s licensing burden.
Cisco’s maneuver was a master stroke from the playbook of open standards strategy. The licensing deal they announced with MPEG-LA appears to cut the legs out from under the main pragmatic argument opposing H.264 (ie. the royalty problem). Mozilla’s support lent Cisco’s approach instant credibility from the ideological wing (ie. the open source camp). And by keeping this under wraps until a week before the upcoming IETF 88 meeting, at which the video codec debate is to be revisited, Cisco left no time for any coordinated response from the VP8 camp.
In the last year we’ve witnessed VP8 proponents and H.264 proponents debate which codec should become “official” for WebRTC. The main points of contention? Licensing fees associated with H.264 make it unaffordable for a non-profits like Mozilla to support. In addition, VP8 isn’t compatible with existing and legacy video conferencing platforms which are typically built to support H.264.
We saw Google draw a line in the sand early on by announcing the “perpetual, worldwide, non-exclusive, no-charge, royalty-free, irrevocable” licensing of VP8. In addition, they recently moved their flagship video conferencing product, Google Hangouts, on to VP8.
Yesterday, Cisco unexpectedly announced that they will release an open-source version of the H.264 codec. The open-source version will include a free downloadable binary module that can be integrated into any application. All without the cost of licensing the codec . This is a strategic precursor to the IETF #88 next week where a vote will take place about the MTI (mandatory to implement) video codec for WebRTC, with the dominant front-runners being VP8 and H264.