Cisco Open Sourcing H.264 Fuels Debate Over Video Codecs

Even though analysts and other vendors applaud Cisco's move, Google says it is sticking with its VP8 codec.

Cisco Systems officials caused a stir in the video conferencing market when they announced the company was essentially open sourcing its H.264 video codec implementation in hopes of making it the standard for WebRTC.

H.264 is the most widely used codec in the real-time communications on the Internet, but using it also requires paying a licensing fee to MPEG-LA. That's a hurdle to even more widespread adoption of H.264, given that there are royalty-free options out there, including the VP8 codec being championed by Google and others.

However, Cisco officials said Oct. 30 that they are not only releasing an open-source H.264 module that any developer can use, but also that the networking vendor will pay the royalties the Web browser maker would have to pay, a move that could cost Cisco millions of dollars a year. Mozilla officials have said they will use the Cisco implementation in Firefox.

"Many, including Cisco, have been backing H.264, the industry standard which today powers much of the video on the Internet," Rowan Trollope, senior vice president and general manager for Cisco's Collaboration Technology Group, wrote in a post on the company's blog. "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."

Cisco's announcement came a week before the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) is set to begin discussions regarding video codecs for the WebRTC standard, a protocol aimed at enabling browser-to-browser video communications without the need for special plug-ins or clients. Google, the driver behind WebRTC, favors the royalty-free VP8 codec.

Cisco's decision was met by applause—some of it muted—from analysts and other industry players who have argued that interoperability is one of the key challenges to more widespread adoption of online video collaboration. However, Google officials seemed unimpressed, saying they were sticking by VP8.

"There is strong industry momentum behind the open, royalty free VP8 video format," a Google spokesperson told the news site GigaOM. "We hope that the IETF community will come together in voting against royalty encumbered technology as they slow down the pace of innovation on the web and on the internet."

However, analysts and even Cisco's top rival in the video conferencing space—Polycom, a vocal proponent of interoperability standards—said the networking giant's decision is a critical step forward for the H.264 codec and interoperability in general.

"Polycom applauds Cisco for taking similar steps today in making the H.264 codec freely available," A.E. Natarajan, executive vice president of worldwide engineering at Polycom, said in a post on the company's blog. "We believe that this will help ensure industry interoperability between new technologies, such as WebRTC, and existing video codecs and signaling, which is critical to protecting customer investments and broadening adoption and usage of video. Continuing with H.264, and eventually H.265, as the standard versions of video codecs is in the best interest of users of real-time and streamed video, the vendor ecosystem that serves them, and our industry."

Jim Lundy, an analyst with Aragon Research, agreed.

"Cisco’s move to make the H.264 AVC codec royalty-free helps them and the entire industry," Lundy wrote on the firm's blog. "It also takes some of the momentum from Google's critical argument to make VP8 the standard Codec for WebRTC. … The battle to control the direction of WebRTC is on, and Cisco just threw down a trump card by open-sourcing the H.264 AVC codec. Since H.264 is the de facto HD video standard, this could open up a new wave of innovation in video-enabled applications."