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Mozilla will add H.264 to Firefox as Cisco makes eleventh-hour push for WebRTC's future

October 30, 2013 | Telepresence Options


Story and images by Janko Roettgers / gigaom

Cisco staged a major coup Wednesday by announcing a new initiative that is meant to turn H.264 into the default codec for real-time communication on the web: the company open-sourced its H.246 codec implementation and also announced the release of a plugin that will allow third-party developers to use H.264 without the need to pay any licensing costs. One of the first apps to make use of this is none other than Mozilla's Firefox.

Mozilla CTO Brendan Eich told me Tuesday that it intends to add H.264 to Firefox in the first half of 2014. For Mozilla, this concludes a gradual acceptance of H.264 over open video formats. But Cisco's initiative, and its cooperation with Mozilla, has implications far beyond Firefox, as it could shape the future of voice and video chat across devices and platforms.

A last push for H.264 before next week's IETF meeting

Cisco's announcement comes in the midst of a heated debate about the technology that is going to power this kind of real-time communication. Almost everyone in the industry agrees that this future will be based on�an emerging standard called WebRTC�that allows users to communicate across devices without the need to download any software. What the driving forces behind WebRTC can't agree on is a common video codec.

Google has proposed to turn its own royalty-free VP8 codec into the default technology for video chatting. Companies like Ericsson and Cisco on the other hand have long made the case for turning H.264 into the default codec for WebRTC. The advantage of that choice would be that H.264 is more widely adopted and supported by legacy devices; the disadvantage is that using H.264 could require companies to pay licensing fees to patent pool outlet�MPEG LA.

Cisco's message to developers now is: "Don't worry about those fees; we'll foot the bill." The company will compile a freely downloadable component for a variety of platforms and allow developers to add it to its own apps. Any fees for the use of the format will be directly paid by Cisco.

Related:�See Google's Responce

Cisco is pressing this issue a mere week before the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) is set to convene in Vancouver, where the WebRTC working group is trying to finally agree on a default codec for WebRTC. "We think this will help to push the edge over to H.264," said Cisco's Collaboration CTO Jonathan Rosenberg during an interview Tuesday.

For Firefox, H.264 support has been a long time coming

Mozilla has already been gradually moving towards acceptance of H.264 in recent years. The foundation initially rejected H.264 as patent-encumbered and incompatible with the spirit of open source software. But�Mozilla eventually accepted H.264 for video playback on mobile devices�because there was little alternative after Adobe stopped supporting Flash for mobile phones and tablets. Mozilla also�started to support H.264 to some Windows versions of Firefox�by using the operating system's native support for the codec.

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