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The Google and Vidyo Partnership Enters a New Phase: Scalable WebRTC

August 28, 2013 | David S. Maldow, Esq.


Vidyo announced a new development in its relationship with Google today. The result will be a videoconferencing experience combining the benefits of WebRTC and SVC (scalable video coding). I spoke with Vidyo CEO, Ofer Shapiro, to get the inside scoop on this announcement. But first, in order to understand the full context, we need to go back and take a quick look at the very successful result of their partnership to date, Google Hangouts.

The "Google Hangout" feature is the shining star of the Google+ social network. While the debate over the long term viability of Google+ continues, no one can deny that Hangouts are a winner. Aside from its adoption and use among consumers (as a free alternative to Skype, which charges for multiparty meetings), some enterprising individuals and businesses have leveraged Hangouts in truly novel video applications.

Back when Google Hangouts first were made available in 2011, the search giant was already backing a new, open source, video protocol known as VP8. The plan was to use VP8 to power WebRTC browser based videoconferencing (please see Tim Kridel's article for more info on WebRTC). In the simplest terms, WebRTC allows for videoconferencing within a browser, without any plugins or separate clients. Think of how you watch YouTube videos right in your web browser, compared to the old days when we used to download videos and watch them on the Windows Media client. WebRTC promises to do the same for videoconferencing, it will simply be part of a webpage.

Unfortunately for Google, their open source video protocol wasn't ready to support Hangouts when Google+ launched, so they were forced to find a partner in the existing videoconferencing space. That partner turned out to be Vidyo, known for developing and leveraging the SVC extension of the H.264 video standard to provide a number of benefits, which go beyond the scope of this article. At the time, this was a major win for Vidyo, which was still deep within the video protocol wars with the traditional VC industry, and could be seen as an early sign of H.264 SVC's eventual acceptance throughout the VC universe.

The Google Hangouts, powered by Vidyo's H.264 SVC, provided a new level of experience for free videoconferencing. But despite its success, and despite Google's obvious pleasure with Vidyo, we all knew the other shoe would eventually drop and Google would switch Hangouts over to the VP8 protocol. While this phase of the partnership is at an end, their work together will continue for one major reason. Through Hangouts, Google got a first-hand demonstration of the power of SVC to provide scalable videoconferencing. Unfortunately for Google, VP8 does not currently support SVC.

So how does Google get to have its cake (VP8) and eat it too (SVC)? By partnering with Vidyo to create an SVC extension for VP8's successor codec (VP9), optimized for WebRTC browser based videoconferencing. For now, they will switch Hangouts over to VP8 and suffer without SVC, while they work with Vidyo to develop and implement the new extension and finalize VP9. For Google, Vidyo, and the users, this is a win, win, win.

It is a win for Google because they can operate their Hangouts the way they always envisioned, using open source code (which they have a heavy hand in developing), while keeping the benefits of SVC scalability. It is a win for the users because SVC and WebRTC are the hottest technologies in the videoconferencing universe, and a solution that provides all the benefits of both will help to make VC a better productivity tool.

But how is it a win for Vidyo? Are they not losing a licensing deal with Google Hangouts? While I am not privy to the details of the previous Vidyo / Google arrangement, I feel that any revenue loses are more than offset by the potential gains for Vidyo from this new arrangement. Basically, Vidyo is setting themselves up to repeat their success with H.264 SVC, in the WebRTC arena. Note, Vidyo is not abandoning the H.264 world, as it has been working hard on the SVC extension for the next iteration of that protocol (H.265).

In a recent webinar on videoconferencing adoption in small to medium business, I asked Ofer whether Vidyo has shot itself in the foot by working to develop the H.264 SVC standard to the point where his competitors were now using it. From Vidyo's perspective, while the competition has validated SVC, everyone else is still playing catchup and learning how to implement the technology. Whereas Vidyo, having played a major part in developing SVC, has an advanced mastery of the technology and can leverage the its benefits beyond what their competitors can do. The same logic applies to creating an SVC extension for VP9. If VP9-SVC is as successful as H.264 SVC, it will certainly behoove Vidyo to be the experts in the field.

I asked Ofer today whether he is shooting himself in the foot in yet another way by simply supporting WebRTC in general. After all, if every computer with a Chrome or Firefox browser (and someday IE), becomes a free, high quality, video endpoint, how is Vidyo going to make any sales? Ofer reminded me that Vidyo has never been primarily interested in selling endpoints, they sell the infrastructure (hardware or virtualized) that runs behind the scenes allowing the endpoints to make calls. The way Vidyo sees it, every additional free endpoint in the world is another potential connection to a Vidyo powered service.

In other words, enabling scalable WebRTC on every Chrome browser in the world isn't giving away free videoconferencing to the world, but it is making everyone in the world a potential customer for Vidyo and its partners. Will other players, including Vidyo's traditional competitors, be able to offer competitive services to support this new open standard? Absolutely, and they will be competing against the company developing the standard. Advantage Vidyo.

What about Google Hangouts itself? Will Google Hangouts compete against Vidyo? We asked the same question back in 2011 and since then both Google Hangouts and Vidyo have enjoyed huge growth and adoption. There is no reason to expect this to change under the next phase of this partnership.�Remember, Google Hangouts success has been primarily non-industry (regular people use it), while Vidyo is an enterprise solution. While some businesses use Google, most still prefer a private service provider or local hosting for security reasons. There may be some overlap and competition between Google and Vidyo, but up till now the massive success of Google Hangouts hasn't hurt Vidyo in the least.�

When Google originally picked Vidyo to partner on the original Hangouts, I noted that it could be a defining moment in videoconferencing history. This new announcement could be another such moment. If Vidyo and Google are on the mark here, we will be meeting over video using WebRTC-SVC very soon, and for years to come, and in ways we haven't yet imagined.

About the Author
David_Maldow, Esq.David Maldow, Esq. is a visual collaboration technologist and analyst with the Human Productivity Lab and an associate publisher at Telepresence Options. David has extensive expertise in testing, evaluating, and explaining telepresence and other visual collaboration / rich media solutions. David is focused on providing third-party independent analysis and opinion of these technologies and helping end users better secure their visual collaboration environments. You can follow David on Twitter and Google+.

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