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Tuesday, August 07, 2012, 09:42 am PT (12:42 pm ET)

Google, Microsoft fight over standards to rival Apple's FaceTime


FaceTime, WebRTC not directly comparable

At the same time, experimental WebRTC apps can already be loaded in the web browser of Macs and iOS devices. In fact, WebRTC (just like Google's WebM) is primarily aimed at web users, so it isn't really accurate to think of its as "Android's equivalent to FaceTime."

One primary problem to real world adoption of WebRTC is that Google is working hard to push the use of its acquired codecs, which all lack hardware accelerated support on iOS devices. That means iOS devices aren't optimized to deliver WebM video, and certainly not the high quality video that FaceTime supports via its use of the advanced H.264 codec and its highly efficient on-chip encryption built into every one of the more than 300 million devices running iOS 5.

For Android, Google offers Google Talk video, voice and text chat, which is peer-to-peer technology based on Jabber (like Apple's original iChat AV). The company also provides group video chat for Android within its Google+ app (also available for iOS). This summer, the company announced it would be moving Google Talk to "Google+ Hangouts technology," in an effort to consolidate its offerings.

"Unlike the old [Google Talk] video chat," Google stated in its announcement, "which was based on peer-to-peer technology, Hangouts utilize the power of Google’s network to deliver higher reliability and enhanced quality."

It's not clear if Google will shut down Google Talk and shift its video conferencing product for Android exclusively to Google+ but this indicates Google is interested in moving to a centralized, authenticated system more like FaceTime, but integrated with "screen sharing and integrated Google Docs collaboration," similar to iChat Theater (something that's not currently supported in FaceTime).

Apple hasn't yet revealed its hand, but it is likely to eventually add iChat Theater features (including support for screen sharing and document collaboration) to FaceTime on iOS, and potentially also bring support for proprietary instant messenger "iChat" features, including Jabber, Yahoo and AIM chat, melding Messages with FaceTime.

Microsoft proposes CU-RTC-Web as alternative to WebRTC

While Microsoft initially offered some support for the concept of WebRTC, it has recently stated that Google's submission shows "no signs of offering real world interoperability with existing VoIP phones, and mobile phones, from behind firewalls and across routers and instead focuses on video communication between web browsers under ideal conditions."

It has instead proposed its own CU-RTC-Web (Customizable, Ubiquitous Real Time Communication over the Web) specification to the W3C standards body. Microsoft's specification is based on the HTML5 getUserMedia API rather than SIP (which Microsoft claims is less suitable for use in web apps because it doesn't support stateless connections), and is intended to work with more codecs than those Google is pushing.



Unsurprisingly, Microsoft's rival submission is authored by its Skype team, including its principle architect Matthew Kaufman, whom the company describes as the "inventor of RTMFP, the most widely used browser-to-browser RTC protocol on the web."

Kaufman's Real-Time Media Flow Protocol was developed at Adobe as a peer-to-peer media distribution protocol for Flash Media Server before he joined Microsoft to work on Skype.

Microsoft's rival protocol was just introduced this week, but it may have some impact in the formation of a unified specification for video conferencing on the web if Google and other browser vendors see value in it. Microsoft had formerly voiced interest in Google's WebRTC, presumably seeing it as a potential way to deliver Skype within the browser.

Now that Microsoft has splintered off with its own technology proposal, support for Google's WebRTC remains backed by the company's own Chrome, Mozilla's Firefox and the Opera browser, the three parties who also support Google's WebM video codec.

Apple remains notably absent from the discussion surrounding WebRTC, focusing instead on delivering FaceTime via native apps on both iOS and OS X rather than attempting to deliver browser-based video conferencing.

Given that the only other significantly profitable mobile device maker is now Apple's arch-rival Samsung, it does not appear likely that Apple's FaceTime will extend widely beyond the Mac and iOS platforms any time soon, despite Jobs' initial assurance that Apple would aggressively license the technology to promote it as the world's standard for video conferencing.