Reconciliation draws closer for Skype-like chat on the Web

Microsoft and Google are converging on a way to bring real-time video and audio chat to the Web, and a new draft standard helps pave the way.

Stephen Shankland Former Principal Writer
Stephen Shankland worked at CNET from 1998 to 2024 and wrote 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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  • Shankland covered the tech industry for more than 25 years and was a science writer for five years before that. He has deep expertise in microprocessors, digital photography, computer hardware and software, internet standards, web technology, and more.
Stephen Shankland
2 min read

Justin Uberti, a WebRTC leader speaking at Google IO 2012.
Justin Uberti, a WebRTC leader speaking at Google IO 2012. screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

The future of Skype-like communications on the Web appears more secure with reconciliation in a standards debate that pitted Microsoft against Google and Mozilla.

On Tuesday, authors of a Web technology called Object Real-Time Communications (ORTC) published a draft of their specification they believe to be mature enough to be built into browsers. Microsoft has long been an ORTC fan, so its support is no surprise. But Google, which backed a rival technology called WebRTC, is also an ORTC co-author that helped create the new technology.

Microsoft announced the new ORTC draft Tuesday. Google and Mozilla declined to comment, but at the Google I/O developer show in June, Chrome team member Justin Uberti said he sees an ORTC-infused WebRTC essentially as WebRTC 1.1.

"Is this going to be a schism between the two churches of WebRTC?" he asked. "I wanted to head that off. ORTC will be integrated into WebRTC 1.1. Your existing code is going to keep on working...It's the best of both worlds."

Unifying two competing standards may sound like something only programmers care about. But for regular people, it hastens the day that they'll be able to use their browsers to set up a video or audio chat link by, for example, clicking on a name in a contact list.

That makes Internet-based communications easier without jumping through software installation hoops or making sure something like Microsoft's Skype or Apple's Facetime is installed. And with Microsoft on board, it means more browsers and devices will be able to communicate than just those running Chrome or Firefox.

Google has pledged to build some aspects of ORTC called RTPSender/Receiver into Chrome.
Google has pledged to build some aspects of ORTC called RTPSender/Receiver into Chrome. Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

One key part of the reconciliation is sidestepping a technology called Session Description Protocol (SDP) that was used to establish a communication link between two devices. SDP already was developed through a different standards body, the Internet Engineering Task Force, but ORTC uses a different approach called RTPSender/Receiver that Google said it'll build into Chrome 38 or 39.

"The SDP Offer/Answer approach in WebRTC 1.0 has proven to be difficult to get standardized in IETF and challenging to get truly interoperable in the browsers. ORTC simplifies the connection 'handshake,' and there is a growing consensus that its JavaScript-based approach is more future-proof," said Michael Champion, a Microsoft member of the ORTC effort, in a statement to CNET. JavaScript is the programming language that lets programmers make Web sites interactive.

Microsoft also said SDP has had problems with simulcasting, in which the same video stream is sent to multiple recipients, and adapting to different video quality.

With the ORTC standard itself settling down, software to actually build it into browsers or other programs will follow suit, said ORTC co-author Erik Lagerway, who works for a mobile communications firm called Hookflash that's developing open-source ORTC software.

"Now that this last publication of the ORTC spec has essentially reached a "Public Draft" state, we should see things should move a bit quicker," Lagerway said.