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The Google and Firefox Race for WebRTC Apps

April 09, 2015

Both Google and Mozilla have a vested interest in seeing usable WebRTC applications come to the fore.  Each company has rolled out real-world services leveraging their own WebRTC knowledge and head start on developing useful tools, but it is difficult to say if either company has a long-term advantage in the larger race to secure browser market share and bring more users in contract with their services.

Google's key to the WebRTC kingdom is a big one.  Google Hangouts provides free multi-user audio and video conferencing using a framework of WebRTC bits and pieces, but a deeper analysis by Philippe Hanke over at last year shows there are a several non-standard WebRTC features taking advantage of Chrome's architecture.   Hangouts uses security descriptions for encryption, RTP-based data channels, and per-candidate ICE parameters.  None of the features are part of the official WebRTC spec, meaning Firefox doesn't work with the WebRTC version of Hangouts.

Do we cry "foul" at Google for not making Hangouts 100 percent WebRTC compatible with other browsers and the official spec? Or accept that Chrome represents the biggest chunk of the WebRTC browser world right now and move on?  At this point in time, it's not a big deal, but when Apple and Microsoft roll out their WebRTC-compatible browsers, it could become a bigger discussion point.  Google hasn't been exactly evil when it doesn't follow the WebRTC spec, but behind-the-scene tweaks that use Chrome-specific features -- and hence ensuring the use of Chrome -- tend to undermine the company's public rah-rah on open standards and WebRTC.

WebRTC standardization is "more than codecs" as advocates say.  Depending on your feelings, either Google is ahead of the curve on actual implementation of real-world services and trying to get everyone caught up to their way of thinking or Google wants everyone to adopt their way of thinking.  The problem is when Microsoft and others have their own strongly-held ideas.

In the future, we will have a better idea of how far Google will "bend" to the wants of others when it comes to supporting H.264 for video.  Microsoft plans to support H.264 only in WebRTC while Google is supporting VP8, so it is likely enterprise users will either have to choose between the forthcoming Project Spartan browser and Chrome.   Enterprises have a lot of existing gear and software supporting H.264, so Spartan might be a no brainer for large businesses if Google doesn't blink on the issue.

Interestingly enough, Mozilla's Firefox just happens to support H.264 via plug-in and a relationship with Cisco. While no plug-ins are supposed to be one of the major reasons behind WebRTC, Cisco's Open H264 is available both in open source code and a binary download.  Firefox automatically downloads and uses the Cisco OpenH264 module, so there's a big win for Firefox in the enterprise space.

via Shutterstock

Mozilla's showcase WebRTC app is Firefox Hello. It provides a simple way to provide a peer-to-peer video conversation between two WebRTC browsers. That's it. No screen sharing, no multi-party video conferencing, no fancy bells and whistles. Telefonica provides back-end server support through its Tokbox subsidiary, but it's all free.

Clearly there's no winner in the WebRTC application implementation race between Google and Mozilla.  Google has bigger mindshare with Hangouts, but use of Hangouts requires Chrome because of a lot of non-standard code in the application. Firefox Hello is a simple way to conduct peer-to-peer video conferencing directly in the browser, but it isn't gaining big buzz since there are already a number of existing IM clients supporting video.

Both sides need to worry about what Microsoft plans to do.  The company is already rolling in WebRTC support into Skype and Skype for Business. With native support of H.264, Microsoft will have an advantage within the enterprise when Windows 10 comes out.  The "killer app" for all three companies may be how well each supports H.264 and comes up with an enterprise app that takes full advantage of WebRTC and existing H.264 infrastructure.  

Edited by Stefania Viscusi

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