Cisco Pushes H.264 Video Codec Toward Standardisation


Industry observers applauded Cisco’s move to essentially open source H.264, but Google said it will continue to support the rival VP8 codec

Cisco Systems officials caused a stir in the video conferencing market when they announced the company was essentially open sourcing its H.264 video codec implementation in hopes of making it the standard for WebRTC.

H.264 is the most widely used codec in the real-time communications on the Internet, but using it also requires paying a licensing fee to MPEG-LA. That’s a hurdle to even more widespread adoption of H.264, given that there are royalty-free options out there, including the VP8 codec being championed by Google and others.

Expensive gamble

However, Cisco officials said on 30 October that they are not only releasing an open-source H.264 module that any developer can use, but also that the networking vendor will pay the royalties the web browser maker would have to pay, a move that could cost Cisco millions of dollars a year. Mozilla officials have said they will use the Cisco implementation in Firefox.

YouTube, Video © Palto Shutterstock 2012“Many, including Cisco, have been backing H.264, the industry standard which today powers much of the video on the Internet,” Rowan Trollope, senior vice president and general manager for Cisco’s Collaboration Technology Group, wrote in a post on the company’s blog. “We strongly believe that interoperability is an essential goal of standards activities and that usage of H.264 by WebRTC means it will be able to interconnect, without transcoding, to a large set of existing clients from a multitude of vendors.”

Cisco’s announcement came a week before the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) is set to begin discussions regarding video codecs for the WebRTC standard, a protocol aimed at enabling browser-to-browser video communications without the need for special plug-ins or clients. Google, the driver behind WebRTC, favours the royalty-free VP8 codec.

Cisco’s decision was met by applause – some of it muted – from analysts and other industry players who have argued that interoperability is one of the key challenges to more widespread adoption of online video collaboration. However, Google officials seemed unimpressed, saying they were sticking by VP8.

“There is strong industry momentum behind the open, royalty free VP8 video format,” a Google spokesperson told the news site GigaOM. “We hope that the IETF community will come together in voting against royalty encumbered technology as they slow down the pace of innovation on the web and on the internet.”

Support for Cisco

However, analysts and even Cisco’s top rival in the video conferencing space – Polycom, a vocal proponent of interoperability standards – said the networking giant’s decision is a critical step forward for the H.264 codec and interoperability in general.

“Polycom applauds Cisco for taking similar steps today in making the H.264 codec freely available,” A.E. Natarajan, executive vice president of worldwide engineering at Polycom, said in a post on the company’s blog. “We believe that this will help ensure industry interoperability between new technologies, such as WebRTC, and existing video codecs and signaling, which is critical to protecting customer investments and broadening adoption and usage of video. Continuing with H.264, and eventually H.265, as the standard versions of video codecs is in the best interest of users of real-time and streamed video, the vendor ecosystem that serves them, and our industry.”

Jim Lundy, an analyst with Aragon Research, agreed.

“Cisco’s move to make the H.264 AVC codec royalty-free helps them and the entire industry,” Lundy wrote on the firm’s blog. “It also takes some of the momentum from Google’s critical argument to make VP8 the standard Codec for WebRTC. … The battle to control the direction of WebRTC is on, and Cisco just threw down a trump card by open-sourcing the H.264 AVC codec. Since H.264 is the de facto HD video standard, this could open up a new wave of innovation in video-enabled applications.”

The VP8 codec has other issues around it besides Cisco’s open sourcing of its H.264 implementation, according to Irwin Lazar, an analyst with Nemertes Research. H.264 is much more widely used in both endpoints and video software, and using VP8 in WebRTC on H.264-enabled devices would make it more difficult and time-consuming for those with H.264-enabled devices. In addition, Nokia has filed lawsuits against Google over ownership of VP8, creating the possibility that VP8 may not always be royalty-free.

However, Cisco’s effort faces its own competitive challenges, including whether Apple and Microsoft – which Lazar said have been undecided between H.264 due to the royalties and VP8, which is supported by rival Google – will go along with it, he wrote in a post on the Nemertes blog. At the same time, Microsoft and Cisco are competitors in the unified communications (UC) market.

Competitive dynamics

“For Cisco’s gamble to pay off, [Microsoft, Apple and Google] will have to embrace Cisco’s open source module and embed it into their browsers,” Lazar wrote. “But again, competitive dynamics often rule the day. For Google to accept H.264 means making its own code irrelevant. [As UC rivals,] will Microsoft embrace Cisco’s approach or could it copy Cisco and offer its own H.264 with it too paying the licence fee (and would its H.264 implementation be compatible with Cisco’s?) While these scenarios will play out over the next few months, Cisco has given WebRTC momentum a tremendous shove forward. The next move is in the hands of Apple, Google and Microsoft.”

Monty Montgomery, a developer at Mozilla who has been working on that company’s Daala open codec, said he was reluctantly declaring H.264 the winner over VP8.

“Let’s state the obvious with respect to VP8 vs H.264: We lost, and we’re admitting defeat,” Montgomery wrote in his blog. “Cisco is providing a path for orderly retreat that leaves supporters of an open web in a strong enough position to face the next battle, so we’re taking it. By endorsing Cisco’s plan, there’s no getting around the fact that we’ve caved on our principles. That said, principles can’t replace being in a practical position to make a difference in the future.”

However, he said Cisco’s move is a “stopgap” that does nothing to “address any licensing issues surrounding the next generation of video codecs. We’ve merely kicked the can down the road and set a dangerous precedent for next time around. And there will be a next time around.”

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Originally published on eWeek.