I’m sitting here scratching my head trying to understand what’s Microsoft’s strategy with respect to WebRTC. I suspect many of you are doing the same.
Yesterday, Microsoft demoed a¬†Skype-like videochat app built using its proposed CU-RTC-Web framework. CU-RTC-Web is a competitor to the emerging WebRTC framework. Both would allow Web developers to literally create next-generation communications and collaboration technologies using just a few lines of code. In other words,¬†quickly and inexpensively.
Microsoft touts its CU-RTC-Web as being more open than the WebRTC standard currently being debated by the World-Wide Web Consortium (W3C). That, Redmond says, is necessary, to give Web developers the flexibility to choose the right technologies, such as video codecs, for their WebRTC app.
To drive the point about open-ness home, Microsoft’s demo app let a Mac user running Google’s Chrome browser chat with a Windows user running Internet Explorer 10.¬†Can’t get much more open than that, right?
Well, not everybody agrees. Observers have been interpreting Microsoft’s move several ways, which I’ll summarize below.
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(Before I continue, here’s¬†full disclosure: Avaya is a market leader in the current generation of SIP-based communications and collaboration software competing against Microsoft, Cisco and many others. So it obviously has a dog in this fight. Avaya already has a large number of employees¬†working on WebRTC. Also, Avaya Distinguished Engineer Alan Johnston is a known expert and¬†author on WebRTC¬†and a key member of the IETF working group for WebRTC. I’ve spoken with him in the past about WebRTC, though not in reaction to Microsoft’s announcement.¬†And,¬†last but not least, any point-of-view that comes through here is¬†STRICTLY¬†my own, and not the official Avaya position.)
Theory No. 1: Microsoft genuinely believes WebRTC is too restrictive for developers.¬†As¬†one commentator wrote¬†on GigaOm, “Microsoft’s approach makes sense as VP8 codec is not good.”
VP8 is being suggested as the default video codec of WebRTC. It was open-sourced by Google several years ago. Unlike the popular H.264 codec that others have suggested for WebRTC, VP8 is free.
As another¬†GigaOm commentator¬†wrote: “Let’s not forget that there’s an awful lot of H.264 out there, particularly in mobile devices and video conferencing systems. It makes sense to allow WebRTC to be interoperable with those.”
As one commentator on Windows fan/developer site, NeoWin,¬†summarized: “Why is it when Microsoft does cool stuff like this, its viewed with suspicion, when in fact most of their work uses open standards.”
Theory No. 2: Microsoft is playing a delaying game in order to protect Skype.¬†Microsoft spent $8.5 billion for Skype. That seemed like a lot then. And it will seem like a lot more when the first lone WebRTC developer announces a Skype clone that hebuilt in a few energy-drink-fueled days.
(Of course, making a¬†good¬†app that attracts¬†millions¬†of users that will¬†pay¬†you money are still huge obstacles, as too many failed Web and mobile startups have discovered.)
Still, WebRTC has the potential to make Microsoft look like it spent like a drunken sailor on Skype. So some argue that CU-RTC-Web is Microsoft’s attempt to slow down that disruption by forking.
Theory No. 3: Microsoft doesn’t know what it really wants. With more than 100,000 employees and contractors, Microsoft is a huge bureaucracy where the foot does not always know what the hand is doing – nor agree with it. For instance, you know that Google-born video codec VP8 that Microsoft doesn’t seem so hot on?¬†Skype itself uses VP8 as its default codec¬†and has done so for nearly 1.5 years ago. Similarly, I’m sure many in Microsoft disagreed with demoing an app that confirms how easily Skype can be cannibalized. That, they would say, should be left to competitors, not Microsoft itself.
Theory No. 4: Microsoft is playing the standards game just like any other vendor.¬†That’s what¬†one user, Ryanttb, tweeted:¬†“Sure @Microsoft’s looking after themselves but I have to +1: A successful standard cannot be tied to individual codecs.”
And you could argue that Google and Mozilla have been so aggressive in supporting WebRTC because it augments the power of Web browsers and (could) make some native applications obsolete (though I think that if that happens, it will happen faster in the consumer, not enterprise, space).
Apple, the fourth major Web player here, has been non-committal about WebRTC, presumably because it could threaten their app store business and apps like FaceTime. So everyone’s acting in their self-interest. It’s not black and white, good guys versus bad guys.
So what say you? What’s the effect of Microsoft’s announcement? And which do you support?