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Google, Skype, and WebRTC

September 4, 2013 | Telepresence Options

virtual birth control

Story and images by David Michels / NoJitter

Google's real target in its Vidyo deal: Using Hangouts to attack Skype.

Last week, Vidyo made a small 335-word announcement with huge implications for itself and WebRTC. The news was that Google and Vidyo will make SVC part of Google's VP9 codec and WebRTC.

This is really about Skype.

Before I clarify that conclusion, let me clarify the announcement. Google is a proponent of the VP9 Codec that it open-sourced for WebRTC. Google and many others believe that an open-source, free codec will allow video applications and usage to proliferate. Today's more popular codec, H.264, requires licensing, a condition which is common but favors the status quo--innovation typically isn't fostered by patent attorneys.

I've written before that VP9 will be the next big codec (H.265 Will Never Happen). Nokia's legal claims and refusal to license, likely at the behest of Microsoft, remains one of the few remaining legal barriers. (With the Microsoft-Nokia combination, Nokia retained the patents and is no longer beholden to Microsoft). However, there are two benefits associated with both H.264 and H.265: hardware acceleration and scalable video coding (SVC).

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

It is common to find cameras and other hardware devices with included H.264 capabilities. This is not the case for VP8/VP9, but there's no technical barrier preventing it. Hardware vendors are reacting to the lack of demand stemming from intellectual property concerns, but once legal concerns are cleared, then VP8/VP9 will take off and the hardware makers will embrace VP8/VP9.

SVC is a far more complex issue to solve, as it involves both legal and technical issues. SVC enables the codec to send information in layers. A full/high quality video stream uses all the layers, and combinations of layer subsets create video of varying degrees of quality. This enables remote participants to enjoy the same conference when some are on a high-end video room system and others are using a wireless mobile client.

SVC is not a simple standard; there are varying degrees and approaches--there's no interoperable SVC between vendors (because of signaling and transport variables). Many vendors are implementing SVC techniques, but require conversion back to the basic-layer AVC for multi-vendor interoperability. SVC layers involve the frame rate, resolution, and more--resulting in numerous knobs to tweak. Vidyo has built its business on SVC, and although it actively participates on standards and industry boards, it also holds several patents to the technology.

Google had a problem. The company champions WebRTC, VP8/VP9, and SVC--the first two go together, the third is more associated with the H.264 codec (but doesn't have to be). Why is SVC important to Google? The obvious answer is its versatility in different network conditions--but the more direct answer has to do with Hangouts.

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