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Microsoft hopes demo will woo Web-based chat allies

The proposed CU-RTC-Web standard was late to the game, but Microsoft thinks it'll be faster to adopt it than to fix the prevailing WebRTC that Mozilla and Google favor. Mozilla completely disagrees.

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
3 min read

Sometimes code speaks louder than words.

That's why Microsoft today published software demonstrating its own proposal for a Web standard enabling browser-based audio and video chat. In the demo, the CU-RTC-Web (Customizable, Ubiquitous Real-Time Communication) technology is used to set up a real-time voice communication link between Chrome on Mac and IE10 on Windows.

Microsoft has an uphill battle getting CU-RTC-Web to catch on: it showed up late to the game, well after the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) began work standardizing a different approach called WebRTC.

But Microsoft thinks its own proposal is well placed for a come-from-behind victory. That's because WebRTC uses technology called SDP that's difficult for Web programmers to tackle and that still must be updated for browser-based use, said Matthew Kaufman, a principal architect for Microsoft's Skype division and the person who worked on Adobe Systems' real-time chat technology in Flash Player.

"In reality, it turns out there are so many changes required in SDP that we're only starting the process in IETF," Kaufman said in an interview today.

Microsoft's CU-RTC-Web, in contrast, uses a lower-level approach that Microsoft believes is more readily comprehended by Web programmers and more easily adapted to unexpected uses beyond just the obvious use case of Skype-like chat on the Web.

CNET has contacted Google for comment and will update this story if they respond. Mozilla, though, stood by its support for WebRTC and disputed Microsoft's assertions about its drawbacks.

The point of the demo is to show that Microsoft's technology not only works, but that it works interoperably across two different browsers. WebRTC is supported by Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox, but it's not possible today to set up a WebRTC link across the two browsers, Kaufman said.

For a W3C standard to progress, advocates must show "multiple independent implementations are provably interoperable," said Michael Champion, a senior program manager with Microsoft Open Technologies who works on Web standards. Those who would standardize real-time communications on the Web "have got to fix the interoperability one way or the other. We think it would be faster going back a step," adopt Microsoft's proposal, and standardize that without having to worry about extending SDP at the IETF.

But Todd Simpson, Mozilla's chief of innovation, answered my questions about WebRTC as follows:

Is WebRTC interoperability as hard as Microsoft argues?
Complex standards take time to coalesce, and the WebRTC standard proposal is moving steadily forward. The differences between implementations are shrinking quickly.

Is programming with WebRTC harder?
Programming WebRTC is relatively straightforward. We are working with companies that are implementing interesting applications with little or no support from us. There are also libraries and abstraction layers being actively built, by ourselves and others, that make some use cases really easy to implement -- just a few lines of Javascript.

Would it be easier to adopt CU-RTC-Web than to rework the necessary standards at IETF to get WebRTC fully working?
We do not believe so. WebRTC has growing support and awareness.

Is there anything additional Mozilla would like to comment on the subject?
Mozilla is a strong supporter of standardization and the standardization process; WebRTC will be very beneficial to developers, and we expect to see more and more applications built on WebRTC this year.

Updated at 10:10 p.m. PT with Mozilla comment.