WebRTC is one of the most exciting things to happen to the Web in years: it has the potential to bring instant voice and video calling to anyone with a browser, finally unshackling us from proprietary plugins and installed apps. Firefox, Chrome, and Opera already support WebRTC, and Microsoft recently announced future support.
Unfortunately, the full potential of the WebRTC ecosystem has been held back by a long-running disagreement about which video codec should be mandatory to implement. The mandatory to implement audio codecs were chosen over two years ago with relatively little contention: the legacy codec G.711 and Opus, an advanced codec co-designed by Mozilla engineers. The IETF RTCWEB Working Group has been deadlocked for years over whether to pick VP8 or H.264 for the video side.
Both codecs have merits. On the one hand, VP8 can be deployed without having to pay patent royalties. On the other hand, H.264 has a huge installed base in existing systems and hardware. That is why we worked with Cisco to develop their free OpenH264 plugin and as of October this year, Firefox supports both H.264 and VP8 for WebRTC.
At the last IETF meeting in Hawaii the RTCWEB working group reached strong consensus to follow in our footsteps and make support for both H.264 and VP8 mandatory for browsers. This compromises was put forward by Mozilla, Cisco and Google. The details are a little bit complicated, but here’s the executive summary:
- Browsers will be required to support both H.264 and VP8 for WebRTC.
- Non-browser WebRTC endpoints will be required to support both H.264 and VP8. However, if either codec becomes definitely royalty free (with no outstanding credible non-RF patent claims) then endpoints will only have to do that codec.
- “WebRTC-compatible” endpoints will be allowed to do either codec, both, or neither.
See the complete proposal by Mozilla Principal Engineer Adam Roach here. There are still a few procedural issues to resolve, but given the level of support in the room, things are looking good.
We believe that this compromise is the best thing for the Web at this time: It lets us move forward with confidence in WebRTC interoperability and allows people who for some reason or another really can’t do one of these two codecs to be “WebRTC-compatible” and know they can interoperate with any WebRTC endpoint. This is an unmitigated win for users and Web application developers, as it provides broad interoperability within the WebRTC ecosystem.
It also puts a stake in the ground that what the community really needs is a codec that everyone agrees is royalty-free, and provides a continuing incentive for proponents of each codec to work towards this target.
Mozilla has been working for some time on such a new video codec which tries to avoid the patent thickets around current codec designs while surpassing the quality of the latest royalty-bearing codecs. We hope to contribute this technology to an IETF standardization effort following the same successful pattern as with Opus.