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Cisco Open Sources H.264 for WebRTC

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As Jennings stated, “Ubiquitous H.264 support helps eliminate divided islands; users can interoperate with our UC systems from a web browser or mobile device.” Jennings admitted that the new arrangement would help Cisco’s UC competitors as well, but indicated that the company felt that H.264 compatibility between WebRTC and UC systems would be a substantial boon for the UC market as a whole. Jennings also noted that the new licensing arrangement didn’t ensure that the IETF would choose H.264 over VP8 as the MTI codec for WebRTC, but felt that it would be persuasive.

From an implementation perspective, Jennings explained that the code Cisco will distribute incorporates Cisco’s own H.264 codec, and that under the terms of the licensing arrangement with MPEG LA, Cisco must host the module. Mozilla elaborated on the arrangement in its blog post.

Here's a little more detail about how things are going to work: Cisco is going to release, under the BSD license, an H.264 stack, and build it into binary modules compiled for all popular or feasibly supportable platforms, which can be loaded into any application (including Firefox). The binary modules will be available for download from Cisco, and Cisco will pay for the patent license from the MPEG LA. Firefox will automatically download and install the appropriate binary module onto each user's machine when needed, unless disabled in the user’s preferences.                               

What’s clear is that companies like Mozilla and Opera leverage the Cisco modules for H.264 playback in both HTML5 and WebRTC implementations without incurring any H.264-related royalty obligation. Since H.264 licensing costs up to $6.5 million per year, this obviously saves both companies significant cash, but they would still have to fund the AAC royalties. Via Licensing, the Dolby subsidiary that handles AAC licensing, doesn’t disclose the annual charges on its website, and a last minute call to its PR contact for information about those costs has not yet been answered.

Mozilla’s Comments

As you might expect, Mozilla was pretty busy the day before the announcement, and I wasn’t able to speak with a Mozilla rep. The Mozilla blog post clarifies Mozilla’s logic for using the Cisco module for HTML5 playback, subject to the AAC limitation also presented above.

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. Firefox already supports H.264 for the video element using platform codecs where they are available, but as noted in my last blog post on the topic not all OSes ship with H.264 included. Provided we can get AAC audio decoders to match, using Cisco’s OpenH264 binary modules allows us to extend support to other platforms and uses of H.264.

Beyond this, Mozilla CTO Brendan Eich answered several questions that I posed Tuesday night.

How will Mozilla use the Cisco H.264 codec within the Firefox browser? WebRTC, HTML5 playback, or both?

Firefox will automatically download and install the H.264 binary module hosted by Cisco. It will be available for use with WebRTC and the HTML video element. Downstream versions of Firefox and other open source projects will also be able to download and install an H.264 binary module hosted by Cisco.

What's your sense of how support for H.264 in Firefox (and presumably Opera) will affect WebM usage on the web?

It's hard to predict, but this news is very unlikely to change WebM usage at all. Firefox stuck with only WebM for HTML5 video when Chrome supported both H.264 and WebM, and hardly any sites decided to encode twice, instead preferring H.264. This is because all browsers support H.264 already, directly or indirectly, and have for years. Authors create <object> elements loading Flash as fallback inside of <video> elements.

That battle was over years ago. Please see http://brendaneich.com/2012/03/video-mobile-and-the-open-web/.

Will Firefox continue to support WebM?

Yes. VP9 playback is also in the pipeline.

What do you say to developers and users who assert that using a patent encumbered technology is against Mozilla's original charter?

We also support plugins, which support patent-encumbered formats including H.264. We've never rejected plugins on this basis. Mozilla's mission must be upheld by competitive products, or it is toothless. Competitive products may require things we view as far from ideal, if not overtly against our mission. At the same time, we strategize constantly on how to move the web toward a free and unrestricted suite of technologies, including solutions like the Daala open video codec.

Wrapping Up

Will Mozilla pay the AAC licensing fees, or find another company to do so on its behalf? One would expect so, but as Eich says himself, all browsers support H.264/AAC already via Flash. Whatever the fee for AAC licensing, it doesn’t provide Firefox users with access to any additional videos, at least while Flash is still ubiquitous. 

So at one level, Cisco’s license would seem to signal the end of the HTML5 video codec war. Until Mozilla (and Opera) license AAC, however, WebM remains the only practical solution for browser-based HTML5 playback within Firefox and Opera. 

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