Cisco Open-Sources H.264 Codec for Web Communications

by Jeffrey Burt

Mozilla is supporting the move, which is designed to encourage the IETF to make H.264 the standard codec for WebRTC.

Cisco Systems wants the H.264 video codec to be the default standard for real-time communications on the Web, and is willing to put up its own money to make it happen.

The giant networking vendor announced Oct. 30 that it is open-sourcing its H.264 codec implementation to enable it to be used for free in Web communications by paying the licensing fee for the codec to MPEG LA rather than passing it along to users. In addition, Cisco is releasing a plug-in for open-source developers who want to use H.264 for free.

Mozilla officials said they will enable Firefox to use the module, which will bring H.264 support to the browser.

Cisco's move is a significant one for bringing widespread use of real-time communications to the Internet. WebRTC is an emerging standard that appears to be the one that will allow such communications. WebRTC essentially enables users to communicate over the Web via browsers rather than having to download software to make the collaboration happen.

At issue has been what video codec will become the standard for WebRTC. There are royalty-free standards like VP8, which is supported by Google, the driving force behind WebRTC. However, H.264 is much more widely used, but it comes with the need for a license from MPEG LA. By open-sourcing its own implementation of H.264 and paying the royalties to MPEG LA, Cisco is removing the licensing hurdle to making H.264 the de facto codec.

"The industry has been divided on the choice of a common video codec for some time, namely because the industry standard—H.264—requires royalty payments to MPEG LA," Rowan Trollope, senior vice president and general manager for Cisco's Collaboration Technology Group, said in a post on the company's blog. "Today, I am pleased to announce Cisco is making a bold move to take concerns about these payments off the table."

Cisco's announcement comes a week before the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) begins debating the issue of which video codec should become the standard for WebRTC. Trollope said the move to open-source its H.264 implementation and release the binary module dovetails with Cisco's larger collaboration strategy of creating technologies "that are incredibly easy to use and make that technology broadly available to everyone in the world—from the largest companies to the smallest businesses."

"Many, including Cisco, have been backing H.264, the industry standard which today powers much of the video on the Internet," he wrote. "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."

Mozilla officials said they were pleased with Cisco's decision to open-source the H.264 implementation.

"Interoperability is critical on the Internet, and H.264 is the dominant video codec on the Web," Mozilla CTO Brendan Eich wrote in a post on the company's blog. "The vast majority of HTML5 streaming video is encoded using H.264, and most softphones and videoconferencing systems use H.264. H.264 chipsets are widely available and can be found in most current smartphones, including many Firefox OS phones."

Eich wrote that "interoperation of copious H.264 content across OSes and other browsers" is important to users, and that Mozilla is working to integrate the Cisco-hosted H.264 binary module and expects to have something for users in early 2014.

At the same time, Mozilla will continue to support VP8 for both the HTML video element and WebRTC. "VP8 and H.264 are both good codecs for WebRTC, and we believe that at this point, users are best served by having both choices," he wrote.


This article was originally published on Wednesday Oct 30th 2013