Debate Over Online Video Codecs Continues at WebRTC Conference & Expo

There’s a battle over technology standards being waged right now, and the future of video on the Internet hangs in the balance. In some ways, the debate over WebRTC is par for the course in Silicon Valley, with proponents of an open source, royalty-free standard clashing with the inventors (and paid patent-holders) of a more established, higher-quality standard.

That argument played out onstage this week at the WebRTC Conference & Expo in Santa Clara, Calif. The discussions between rivals here have been cordial, at turns deeply technical, but they all seem to come back to the same sticking point–whether WebRTC will be powered in the future by VP9 or H.265.

The architects of Google Chrome and Mozilla’s Firefox have forged ahead by adopting VP8 and VP9, the free video codec that they’d like to see become the backbone of WebRTC–the standard that gives Web programmers access to audio and video players without special plugins. The powers behind Safari and Internet Explorer-you know who they are–remain major holdouts, refusing to adopt WebRTC in its current form. Meanwhile, Cisco Systems last month proposed open-sourcing its version of H.264, a move which won some support from Mozilla.

If you didn’t catch all that, the net result–once WebRTC gets adopted across the board–will be lots more audio and video on the Internet very soon.

But first, it seems, they’ll probably have to agree on a common codec.

(Codecs, a portmanteau of coder/decoder, compress a media file for transmission over the Internet, and decompress that file when it arrives at its final destination).

We already consume massive amounts of online video. Analysts at Comscore estimate 189 million Americans watched 49.1 billion videos on the Internet in October.

While those videos–playing out on YouTube, Facebook, Netflix, Skype, Facetime and others–might look similar on the surface, they’re all powered by a number of different codecs, some open-source, others licensed or proprietary.

The argument over which codec is better is largely academic, said Vidyo cofounder Alex Eleftheriadis. That said, his company is a big proponent of VP9.

“Video has been around since the ’70s and ’80s, and it didn’t manage to take off in any big way,” Eleftheriadis said at the WebRTC conference, in a panel discussion moderated by Avaya Director of Product Management, Anatoli Levine. “The key problem was that it did not deliver a high-quality experience, commensurate with the users’ expectations. … If we develop products with a subpar video experience, we will be penalized by the end users. They will not embrace it.”

Eleftheriadis has a big dog in this fight. Earlier this year, Vidyo licensed its scalable video selection software to Google for inclusion in VP9. (VP9 currently powers Google Hangouts, and will soon power YouTube).

On the other side, proponents of H.265–the latest version of a licensed video standard powering the majority of video conferencing systems today, including Avaya Scopia–argue that their MPEG-based standard delivers higher quality video than VP9 today, and is already compatible with the majority of enterprise video applications. It’s an important distinction, as this explosion of audio and video will inevitably need to be routed through enterprise servers and tools.

“There can and should be a mandatory codec for many, many reasons,” said Hans-Peter Baumeister, Director of Digital Media at Fraunhofer, a German research nonprofit that helped develop the industry’s most widely-used codec, MPEG. “MPEG codecs are the codecs of choice today in 95 percent of all applications. Certainly 95 percent of all traffic on the Internet ultimately runs over MPEG codecs. So, I would advocate that a standard like WebRTC, which has a lot of promise, should not be encumbered by codecs that some companies are not able to embrace, and should in fact, use existing, open, standard-based, patent pool-based, very clear, nice, established codecs like MPEG codecs.”

Selecting the codec will prove to be a very small piece to a very complicated puzzle, Eleftheriadis said. More important, perhaps, is the performance gains that developers will be able to squeeze out of the codec.

For example, DVDs were first released in the mid ’90s, running off the MPEG-2 codec–a relatively basic codec by today’s standards. DVD encoding technology improved by 40 percent between 1994 and 2000, Eleftheriadis said, merely because developers had time to explore the parameters of what was possible with the codec.

Avaya’s Levine noted the politics over codecs occurring behind the scenes, and urged the audience to focus on the larger issues surrounding WebRTC–delivering delightful user experiences over the Web.

“It’s impossible to select the ideal, best codec,” Levine said after the panel. “It’s really a question of the ‘good enough.’ In an ideal world, yes, you can choose the best possible codec, but the problem is, if you’re waiting for the ideal world, then you’re not delivering solutions today.”

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