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Best video tech for Web chat? Showdown set for March

Internet Engineering Task Force members could pick a winner in the competition between Google's free VP8 and the industry-standard H.264 for Web-based chat technology.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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Stephen Shankland
5 min read

After a fractious false start last year, Web standards makers will reconvene in Orlando, Fla., this March to try to settle a debate about the best video technology for browser-based chatting.

The Web-based chat standard, which holds the potential to bring Skype-like audio and video communication services to the Web, is called WebRTC. The debate about it centers on how best to compress video: the widely used industry-standard H.264 codec, or Google's royalty-free, open-source VP8 codec?

The discussion took some surprising twists and turns late last year -- including Google's last-minute action to postpone discussion because of unspecified intellectual property issues and a vote by H.264 patent holders about whether to offer that codec for free.

If this debate sounds familiar, it's because Web standards setters already hashed it out in recent years when dealing with Web video. In that case, fans of H.264's quality and widespread support were pitted against those who gnash their teeth at patent-encumbered technology erecting toll booths on an an Internet otherwise built from free-to-implement standards.

HTML5 introduced built-in video, in principle letting Web developers use it as easily as they do images and no longer requiring them to rely on a plug-in like Adobe Systems' Flash Player.

But the HTML5 video standards world couldn't agree on a codec -- the technology that defines how to encode and decode video so it can be sent over a network or stored on a disk in compressed form. Some prefer the H.264 codec, which is built into Windows 7 and 8, OS X, iOS, and Android, but which requires royalty payments to patent holders when shipped in products. Others prefer Google's VP8, a later arrival that Google is trying to promote as part of the WebM project.

Now we have the sequel to that debate, this time for real-time communications on the Web.

Separately from the codec issue is the RTC issue. The leading contender, backed notably by Google and Mozilla, is a standard in the making called WebRTC. Microsoft arrived later with a lower-level competing proposal called CU-RTC-Web. But regardless of which form of real-time video and audio chat arrives on the Web, a video codec will be necessary.

Standards makers had agreed to a show-of-hands vote on H.264 vs VP8 in November to see if they could pick a mandatory-to-implement (MTI) codec -- in other words, the one that would be required for software to say it supports the standard. That could have been a huge boost for encouraging VP8 adoption, which has been lackluster so far.

Google likes VP8
But at the last minute -- literally -- Google asked to postpone the issue because of unspecified intellectual property rights (IPR) issues at the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), one standards group involved in the real-time communications standard.

In a mailing list message, Google's Serge Lachapelle said:

Google understands that concerns have been raised within the IETF RTCWEB WG [Real-Time Communication in Web browsers Working Group] regards to VP8 IPR...

Google believes strongly that the VP8 codec is the best technical option for a mandatory to implement codec.

We therefore kindly ask to postpone this decision and hope the workgroup will take this opportunity to make progress on other vital topics.

The postponement is for the IETF's upcoming meeting in Orlando from March 10 to 15. That postponement didn't sit well with some.

"This not a 'VP8 project', VP8 stands as a possible candidate, one of a set. It seems you are having trouble putting it formally on the table. Are you sure that those troubles can be resolved in a defined interval?" said Apple's David Singer. And, unsurprisingly given Apple's fondness for H.264, he also offered veiled support for that option: "The best *technical* option is almost certainly something widely deployed, implemented, and understood."

Added Nokia's Markus Isomaki, "I agreed to the proposal to drop the discussions since I was pretty sure we would not learn much new or reach any consensus over this. However, could you elaborate a bit what lead to your request just 5 minutes before the start of the session? I mean, concerns about VP IPR status have been raised all along the way and probably will continue to be."

Google didn't respond to that message or to a CNET request for comment on the issue.

VP8 has been dogged by intellectual property issues since it emerged two and a half years go, but so far there have been no legal challenges. MPEG LA, which licenses the large pool of H.264 patents, however, said VP8 violates 12 organizations' patents without disclosing which.

Royalty-free H.264?
MPEG LA got involved in the issue, too, at the behest of the other standards group working on WebRTC. The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), doesn't like the idea of patent payments in Web standards -- in fact, it's explicitly against its policy. Shortly before the November vote at the last IETF meeting, therefore, the W3C's highest authorities in effect weighed in against H.264.

"Whatever codec the [IETF's] rtcweb Working Group might choose, we encourage the working group to work toward technologies that implementers can be confident are available on a royalty-free basis, and W3C is willing to work with the IETF in achieving this," said none other than World Wide Web creator Tim Berners-Lee, along with W3C Chief Executive Jeff Jaffe, Philippe Le Hegaret, who leads the W3C's HTML work, and Thomas Roessler, a W3C technology leader.

The message dropped a juicy little nugget into the debate: the possibility of free H.264 use.

That might sound improbable, but MPEG LA granted free rights in perpetuity to use H.264 for Web sites that offer free streaming videos. But the W3C suggested that it might not be wise to get any hopes up for more free rights -- because it asked for those already in the earlier HTML5 video debate:

In 2011 W3C approached MPEG LA, the licensing authority for the generally-known patent pool for H.264, with a proposal for royalty-free licensing of the H.264 baseline codec, to be referenced for use by the HTML5 video tag. MPEG LA was receptive to this proposal; however, the proposal was turned down by a narrow margin within the MPEG LA membership.

Realistically, it's quite possible there will be no decision even March. And even if there is, the debate about the best codec doesn't look like it'll end anytime soon.

Because VP8 vs H.264 is only part of the codec debate. As new technologies appear, the video world is starting to move onto the next phase: H.265 vs. VP9.