Google has quietly made the statement that they do not appear willing to support the current industry standard for phone-to-phone video calling inside of Android.
UMTS (and LTE) cell phones are encouraged to comply with the optional 3GPP standard for video phone calling. The standard is part of the 3GPP specification and utilizes H.263 for phone to phone calling.
Support for the standard has been sparse, but always present since the launch of UMTS cellular phones. It is also still present in LTE as part of LTE’s backwards compatibility. LTE did not, however, propose a succeeding standard.
The first phones in the United States that supported UMTS video calling were the original UMTS phones that landed in the USA; the Nokia 6651 and Motorola A845 on AT&T Wireless. While AT&T’s network was effectively a regional test launch – it would not launch nationwide until years later on Cingular’s consolidated network – it did work consistently for almost four years on all capable devices.
Some phone makers have gone to great lengths to support the UMTS video calling standard. Samsung wrote custom code for Windows Phone devices to support the standard and it also was integrated into select Android phones in Europe through custom code too.
However, Apple has avoided the standard in iOS, opting instead for FaceTime. While Steve Jobs himself promised to open up the FaceTime standard, Apple never has, and has refused to comment on the commitment by Apple’s founder on every occasion since. Microsoft has since purchased Skype and integrated it into all Windows products.
And that leaves Google. Google has struggled with its own video calling standard, first using Jabber atop Google Talk – and then closing the platform by forking Jabber to create the closed-source Google Hangouts platform.
Where this leaves the industry is with three video calling standards that are completely private, and completely incompatible. So it was no surprise when Google closed the feature request to add 3GPP video calling as “obsolete.” It’s also sad that the industry can’t cooperate on standards anymore.
This adds insult to injury because H.263 is mandatory for Android-compatibility. Google mandates devices support H.263 but appears uninterested in closing the loop and allowing UMTS/LTE Android phones to communicate with non-Android UMTS/LTE phones that support H.263 too.
When will this change? Not any time soon, likely. If Google’s VP8 codec (now WebM) survives court patent challenges, that may emerge as an open calling standard for video codecs. WebRTC remains mired in patent land, now proposing to please nobody by requiring both H.264 and WebM on browser-based clients (IoT devices could then use either protocol – but this doesn’t explain how one IoT client with WebM and one IoT client with H.264 could communicate together).
It likely will not be until H.264’s patents expire in 2027 that the industry has a truly patent free choice to replace 3GPP video calling standards. WebRTC’s future remains questionable, and there already is a functional standard in place dating back to devices sold and in-use for over a decade. Supporting 3GPP and the H.263 codec remains the best option for standards-based calling on UMTS/LTE smartphones.