Smartphones & Web TVs Prompt Skype to Embrace H.264


Skype is taking a big step toward its goal of making its video chat service ubiquitous across multiple platforms and devices, with the adoption of the H.264 video format on iOS (s aapl) devices. In a blog post Wednesday, Skype Blogger-in-Chief Peter Parkes wrote that the change will allow Skype’s iPhone users to chat with friends on TVs and other connected devices.

Skype is rapidly extending its reach beyond the PC and expanding the number of devices consumers can use its video chat service on. Since early 2010, the company has been working to enable users to connect web cams to Internet-connected TVs from manufacturers like Panasonic and Samsung, making the service available to users in their living rooms. At the same time, Skype is aggressively positioning itself to dominate the mobile market, releasing an updated iOS app that enables iPhone owners to use those devices’ forward-facing cameras to video chat with each other. The company is also aggressively hiring to support other mobile platforms.

Until recently, however, iPhone users weren’t able to connect to Skype users on other devices due to the video format it used. The decision to adopt H.264 changes that, as it has become the de facto codec for video delivery across a wide range of devices. Due to hardware acceleration built into low-powered devices such as TVs, Blu-ray players and mobile handsets, video publishers have increasingly turned to H.264 for video playback; Skype is merely following that trend with its recent implementation.

H.264 has become the best way — and in some cases the only way — to deliver video onto connected TVs and mobile devices, but a battle is breaking out over the video format used by web browsers for “standards-based” HTML5 video playback. While all modern browsers are working to support HTML5 and its video tag, which enables video playback without the need for a proprietary plugin like Adobe’s (s ADBE) Flash Player, browser makers are divided on which video format to support. Microsoft’s (s MSFT) Internet Explorer 9 and Apple’s (s AAPL) Safari browser have pledged support for H.264, but Google’s (s GOOG) Chrome, Mozilla’s Firefox and Opera are backing Google’s open-source WebM format.

Since it’s a desktop application today, Skype doesn’t necessarily have to worry about the format war developing; however, if it plans to create embedded, standards-based, video chat applications that run in the browser, it might have to align itself with one format or choose to support both. Or if it does plan to run in the browser, Skype could just do what many publishers do today — and deliver video using Adobe’s Flash plugin.

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H.264 is not the de facto standard for video encoding, it’s ISO/IEC 14496, the actual Standard For Video Encoding. The reason it is in all consumer electronics and PC hardware is because it is the ISO standard, it did not become a de facto standard because it is in all the hardware. You can’t build a decoder into thousands of devices by hundreds of manufacturers unless you standardize it first. You can’t sell millions of video downloads to consumers like iTunes has without standardizing first. You can’t sell Blu-Ray Discs to consumers without standardizing first. And cameras and camcorders, and so on. They are ALL H.264 for many, many years now. Everything post-DVD is H.264.

Ryan Lawler

Thanks for the clarification! I will for sure keep that in mind for future articles. So what are the chances that WebM gets standardized and added to hardware?

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