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Real time chat is Google’s next frontier in browser wars

Google’s ambition is to control the next generation software platform, and since it lacks an actual base of APIs, its best hope is to assert its influ


Published: 30 June, 2011


Google’s ambition is to control the next generation software platform, and since it lacks an actual base of APIs, its best hope is to assert its influence over the browser, as the web turns into the most important platform of all. This has not only led to the creation of Chrome and then Chrome OS, but has drawn Google into a range of standards initiatives where it can help define the modern browser. It has been acquiring technologies to put it into a position to form the browser in its own image. Now it is steadily releasing these innovations into open source to try to establish de facto standards.

Last year we saw Google open sourcing VP8, an alternative video codec to H.264, which it acquired with On2 and wants to make the underpinning of HTML5 multimedia (it now calls it WebM). Now it has opened up its WebRTC framework for real time voice and video in the browser – it acquired this last year with Global IP Solutions, and the system is based on VP8.

This framework is now available under a royalty-free BSD license, and helps developers to build real time voice and video chat applications using simple HTML and JavaScript APIs. In a corporate blog post, Google said: “Until now, real time communications required the use of proprietary signal processing technology that was mostly delivered through plug-ins and client downloads.”

As with VP8, this technology looks forward to a world where everything is done in the browser, rendering native apps, and plug-ins like Flash, redundant. This, in turn, dramatically expands the ‘developer base’ for HTML5, since most software can be built using the easy and standardized web tools like JavaScript.

However, there is, of course, a political agenda too. VP8 is designed to sideline H.264, and therefore its key supporters such as Apple. While Google takes the high ground that web standards should rest on free, open source foundations rather than those with paid-for licenses (H.264 is licensed by the MPEG LA pool), it is also seeking to increase its power over the critical browser platform by getting developers onside – and disadvantaging Microsoft, Apple and others. Both these giants will almost certainly stay away from supporting WebRTC because they are backing H.264.

For WebRTC, it has already won the support of several important browser makers apart from its own Chrome, notably Opera – hugely powerful in the mobile world, especially the midrange where so much web growth is happening – and Mozilla. It is also driving home its advantage by engaging with standards bodies like the IETF and W3C to “define and implement a set of standards for real time communications”.

But - as Google knows from its run-ins with Oracle over Java patents supposedly infringed in Android – open source does not guarantee safety from IPR lawsuits. A classic way to slow the momentum of a technology that is threatening to become a de facto standard, is to raise fears over its defenses against litigation. Microsoft has pulled this trick with its suits against Android players, and the MPEG LA licensing agency has threatened to chase royalty payments for VP8 (and so, perhaps, WebRTC) on the grounds that it uses third party patents implemented in H.264. Apple, Microsoft and Ericsson are all part of the MPEG LA patent pool.

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