Microsoft commits to WebRTC – just not Google’s version


Microsoft officially announced its own proposal for plugin-free real-time communication Monday. “Customizable, Ubiquitous Real Time Communication over the Web,” or short CU-RTC-Web, is Microsoft’s contribution to the W3C WebRTC working group, which is working on a common API for voice and video chat between browsers.

Microsoft’s commitment to this kind of technology is a big deal for the future of Skype and other messaging applications. The company’s Skype unit has been working on a browser-based version of its voice and video calling software, and WebRTC could be key to making Skype accessible on a wide variety of browsers without the need for any applications or plug-ins. The technology could also help Skype open up its walled garden, and enable interoperability between users of Skype and Google Talk or other third-party services.

I had a chance to talk to Matthew Kaufman, principal architect for Microsoft-Skype on WebRTC, about his company’s support for WebRTC last week. He didn’t want to comment on how exactly Microsoft wants to use WebRTC, but the mere fact that he, as a key Skype executive, is heading these efforts speaks volumes.

Microsoft kept low profile while others were already implementing

Kaufman also told me that both Skype and Microsoft have been closely involved in the work on a WebRTC standard at the IETF and the W3C since 2010. However, until now, this work has been pretty quiet – especially if you compare it to other browser vendors. Google was an early vocal supporter of WebRTC, and the company recently included key parts of the technology in the stable version of Chrome. Both Mozilla and Opera also ship browsers that already support WebRTC functionality.

Kaufman didn’t think that’s a good idea, and he made no secret of his opinion. “At Microsoft, we have a bit of a more deliberate release cycle,” he said, suggesting that the company wouldn’t support the technology in its consumer products until it’s actually a standard. And, when asked specifically about Google’s support for WebRTC, he replied: “Our companies have a different way of working.”

He likened the current state of WebRTC to WebSocket – a web communications technology that’s supposed to make it easier for HTML5 apps to send messages from servers to browsers, and the other way around. Early versions of WebSocket were widely supported by everyone but Microsoft – but some of the browser makers quickly had to backpedal when a security vulnerability surfaced in 2010.

Microsoft’s take: More flexibilities, no single codec

So what is the difference between Microsoft’s proposal and the technology currently implemented by Google and others? Kaufman likened the way the existing WebRTC proposal works to a black box within the browser: Issues like codecs and the way media is sent over the network are predetermined, with little that app developers can do to optimize for their unique challenges, he explained.

Microsoft, on the other hand, wants to allow more customization and flexibility to implement the technology on legacy devices, Kaufman said. “The history of voice over IP is filled with incompatibility,” he said. Developers of future WebRTC apps should have the power to directly deal with these challenges.

Beyond these issues, there are other philosophical differences between Microsoft and Google, with the question of codecs being a key roadblock. Google and Mozilla want to use VP8, the video codec open sourced by Google in 2010, as the default video codec for WebRTC. Microsoft has been sceptical about VP8 in the past, and Kaufman told me that this stance hasn’t changed. This point was also emphasized in the blog post that announced Microsoft’s proposal Monday. It read, in part:

“Flexibility in its support of popular media formats and codecs as well as openness to future innovation – A successful standard cannot be tied to individual codecs, data formats or scenarios.”

All politics around codecs aside, Kaufman remained optimistic that everyone involved will eventually agree on a common standard. But Microsoft obviously doesn’t want to leave the future of real-time communications up to the Mozillas and Googles of this world, which is why Kaufman urged: “It’s really important for the other participants to get involved in the process.”

Image courtesy of Flickr user  Tsahi Levent-Levi.

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