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WebRTC close to tipping point as Cisco, Microsoft announce products

Matt Weinberger | Nov. 24, 2014
WebRTC has been in the works since Google released its project back in mid-2011.

It was all the way back in the Spring of 2011 that Google released WebRTC, its nascent real-time, browser-based, HTML5-powered, no-plugin-required video chat project to the public. In the three and a half years since, the Internet Engineering Task Force and the W3C have been working together to try to formalize the standard, prepare the stable 1.0 release, and get it ready for prime time.

That prime time has been a long time coming: Plenty of startups, notable among them Vidyo and Twilio, have taken to WebRTC as the protocol that helps them offer video chat from modern browsers like Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox. But while the big technology vendors have offered their support, guidance, and code commits, very few have taken the leap to actually doing anything major with it. Even Google only changed its flagship Hangouts messaging tool over from a plugin to WebRTC this past July. 

But all of that changed just this week. It may have coincided with the annual WebRTC World conference down in sunny San Jose, but the real WebRTC news came from Microsoft and Cisco, both of which made good on years of promises with the introduction of Skype for Web and Project Squared, respectively. There's a lot of work left to be done, but it's all starting to come together for WebRTC. 

Microsoft's Skype for Web essentially does what it says on the tin: Lets you make and receive voice and video calls from within the browser. Today, it uses a plugin. Soon, Microsoft promises, it'll undergo the full switchover to WebRTC, as Mary Branscombe reports for PCWorld. If and when that switchover happens, it'll mark a major validation point as a consumer service that millions of people use and love moves to the WebRTC standard. 

Meanwhile, Cisco Project Squared is a collaboration solution designed to marry the new wave of productivity tools (exemplified by offerings from startups like Slack) with the company's expertise in video and audio chat, developed in conjunction with Mozilla. It's the titanic team-up between WebRTC pioneers you  demanded. 

So what's taken so long? Really, one does not simply stroll into users' browsers. The WebRTC standard supports a lot of things -- the H.264 and VP8 video codecs; video simulcast; scalable video codecs -- that the browsers people actually use in real life don't support across the board. Even today, many popular browsers support these features piecemeal.

"No browser today supports a combination of H.264, simulcast and scalable video codecs. Chrome has simulcast and scalable video codecs and even multi-stream video, but it doesn't have H.264. Firefox supports H.264 but doesn't support simulcast or scalable video codecs or even multi-stream video. IE recently announced it will support H.264, as well as ORTC which by design supports simulcast and scalable video codecs, but that's [in the future]," Skype chief architect Bernard Aboba told PCWorld.


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