Microsoft has submitted a proposed standard for real-time web communications to the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), in a move that could upset the apple cart for other browser vendors who have been working on their own such standard since early 2011.
Microsoft, like Google, Mozilla, and Opera, all want web browsers to be able to make use of cameras and microphones without additional plug-ins. But they have all hitched their wagons to WebRTC, a spec that's currently being developed by the W3C, the Web Hypertext Applications Technology Working Group (WHATWG), and the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF).
Although the WebRTC standard has not been finalized, portions of it have already been implemented in recent versions of the Chrome, Firefox, and Opera browsers.
Microsoft was widely expected to follow suit with Internet Explorer, but in a surprise move on Monday the software giant submitted its own, competing specification to the W3C's WebRTC working group, along with some less than complimentary remarks about the existing standard.
"[WebRTC] shows no signs of offering real world interoperability with existing VoIP phones, and mobile phones, from behind firewalls and across routers," Microsoft's standards team wrote in a blog post, "and instead focuses on video communication between web browsers under ideal conditions."
In order to be effective, Microsoft reps wrote, a real-time communications standard for the web must allow vendors to implement varying types of applications, including kinds that haven't been thought of yet.
Microsoft also said that the WebRTC standard is a poor fit with key web tenets. In particular, it is not a stateless technology, owing to its having been derived from Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) code.
But Redmond's own communications ambitions are broader than those of the other browser makers. Microsoft offers a unified communications platform for enterprises in the form of Lync Server, and in May 2011 it bought VoIP and video chat vendor Skype.
No surprise, then, that Microsoft's proposed communications spec – which goes by the rather tongue-tying title "Customizable, Ubiquitous Real Time Communication over the Web," or CU-RTC-Web for short – was written by Bernard Aboba and edited by Martin Thomson, who are architects in Redmond's Lync and Skype groups, respectively.
Back to the bad old days for browsers?
Microsoft has promised a version of the Skype client that integrates with its new Outlook.com web-based mail service, to allow users to place calls directly from within their inboxes. If the work on CU-RTC-Web is any indication, however, that client may not be based on WebRTC when it arrives.
Unless the other vendors agree to implement Microsoft's standard, this may put users of browsers in the awkward position of needing a plug-in to use Skype over the web, which is the exact thing the WebRTC effort was meant to prevent.
Microsoft's proposal does make use of some portions of the existing WebRTC work, most notably the getUserMedia API, which has been widely implemented in current browsers. But it also adds a peer-to-peer real-time transport protocol layer that WebRTC lacks.
This isn't the first time the browser makers have butted heads over real-time communications. For example, Google would like to see the open source Opus and VP8 audio and video codecs baked into the WebRTC spec, while some other participants favor H.264.
But this latest move from Microsoft may be evidence of a widening schism between the software giant and the other browser makers. Apple, Google, Mozilla, and Opera have all been working to accelerate the pace of web browser development via the WHATWG, but Microsoft has declined to join that organization, citing patent concerns.
Of the core WHATWG members, Google, Mozilla, and Opera have all been closely involved with the WebRTC work, although Apple has been a no-show, most likely because of its commitment to its own FaceTime video chat technology.
By introducing its own, competing communications standard to the W3C now, Microsoft seems to be suggesting that it would prefer to lead web standards developments in areas core to its business, rather than sign on to work being driven by its rivals.
When asked for comment, Opera Software's Thomas Ford told El Reg, "We always welcome new contributions when they are submitted through the appropriate standards bodies. We look forward to evaluating Microsoft's proposal on its technical merits."
Still, given how late in the day the CU-RTC-Web spec arrives, the difficult and time-consuming nature of the web standards process, and Microsoft's contentious history within it, it seems likely that a few groans will escape the offices of some W3C members this week. ®