In my ongoing series of wideband codec interviews I have discussed SILK with Jonathan Christensen of Skype and Speex with its primary author, Jean-Marc Valin. I have also written about Siren from Polycom. So it is high time to look at one of the best known and most widely deployed wideband codecs, iSAC from GIPS. I spoke with Jan Lindén, V.P. of Engineering at GIPS.
The entire interview is transcribed below. The highlights I got from it are that the biggest deployment of wideband voice in the world is from QQ in China, that the next revision of iSAC will be wideband, that 3G is still inadequate for videocalls and that GIPS indemnifies customers of iSAC against IPR challenges.
MS: GIPS has been in the wideband phone call business longer than anybody else. What do you think about the market?
JL: I think the market is definitely going towards wideband. Part of it is all the soft phones that people have used, that’s one step. The fastest way to make it really move is to get the cell phones to support HD Voice. Then people will realize that you can’t have anything else that is worse than what you have on your cell phone. And in the conference and video conference space, whoever has tried an HD Conference as opposed to a regular one immediately recognizes the advantage. The question is, how do you make people experience it? You can’t just wait for demand. You have to offer solutions so customers see the benefit.
MS: Do you think 2009 will be a watershed year for HD Voice?
JL: For sure the industry has woken up, and seen that this is an interesting area. The question is how much it will be in demand by customers. We know that if you try it you definitely want it, but how do you make the customers see that? We are seeing all the enterprise IP phones going to wideband, and we have started to see that move to residential solutions as well. Of course not for the ATA, but for anything like video phones and IP phones, there is much more interest in wideband. Especially for video, because people expect a higher quality in general. There is a lot of interest in video. People are building all kinds of solutions.
MS: What is driving the video solutions?
JL: In the softphone space obviously the biggest use is for personal use where you call your family – I live in San Francisco and my parents and all my siblings live in Sweden, and we talk all the time over video so the kids can see each other and the grandparents can see the grandkids.
MS: Which video solution do you use for that?
JL: Right now I use a solution from one of our customers, for which we supply the audio and video subsystems. I am using a pre-release of that; when it becomes available it’s going to be pretty good.
MS: So who are your main customers?
JL: The biggest names are IBM, Google, Yahoo, WebEx, Nortel, AOL, Citrix, Avaya and Samsung. For example we supply the audio and video subsystem for IBM Sametime. Maybe our biggest customer in terms of deployment is QQ in China. They have hundreds of millions of users. It’s similar to Yahoo or Google. They are not very well known outside China, but they are much bigger than Skype for example, in terms of online users at any given moment. They use iSAC.
MS: So all these customers run on PCs, right?
JL: We also have people who use our stuff in embedded solutions. IP phones, a few mobile devices – Samsung has some of our technology on their cell phones as an application. There is a video phone called the Ojo phone. There are a few ATA devices in Asia, a Wi-Fi phone from NEC. We will have some announcements later.
MS: How does cell phone video work?
JL: Most of them it’s not really videophone, more regular streaming. It depends on the service provider’s solution, which can be expensive. To get effective video phone performance you need Wi-Fi – 3G is still inadequate for good video quality. If the picture is small it can be decent, but you get delay, and the inconsistency of the data network means that a Wi-Fi solution is much more stable and gives better quality.
MS: Does GIPS sell complete conferencing systems?
JL: No, just the audio subsystem – for example Citrix Online’s GoToMeeting uses our audio subsystem to provide HD Voice on their conference bridge.
MS: What is the difference between iSAC and iPCM?
JL: The biggest difference is that iPCM wideband has a significantly higher bitrate, better quality, more robust against packet loss. The biggest reason people don’t use it is that its bitrate is about 80kbps, while iSAC is variable between 10 and 32, so it has a much lower bit rate. They both have a 16 KHz sampling rate.
MS: Do you see the necessity for a super-wideband codec?
JL: We think that’s something we should support. We haven’t done it previously because the benefit from narrowband to wideband is a much bigger step than from wideband to super wideband. We are supporting super wideband in our next release of iSAC.
MS: What about the transcoding issue?
JL: Pragmatically, you will have to have transcoding in some scenarios. You will not find a way to get everybody to agree on one codec or even two or three, but you will probably get two or three codecs that cover most of what’s used.
MS: What about the idea of a mandate to support at least 3 different WB codecs – would that give a good chance of having one in common?
JL: It’s a good idea, but the question is, will you get everybody to buy into it? It’s the most crucial point. Of course those codecs will have to be good codecs that are not expensive, and preferably not too associated with one player that will create political issues with other players in the market.
MS: You mentioned “not too expensive.” iLBC is royalty free, but narrowband. Does GIPS offer a royalty free wideband codec?
JL: No, our iSAC codec is not free per se, but if you look at other pricing available today in the market we are effectively only charging for the indemnification. We are not charging even close to as much as typical codecs like AMR-WB.
MS: So that’s huge that you offer indemnification.
JL: Yes, and no free codecs do that, obviously. If you want indemnification you have to pay something.
MS: Who else indemnifies?
JL: Typically not the codec vendor, but if you go and buy a chip from someone that has a codec on it from somebody like TI you will typically get indemnification, but from the chip vendor, not the IPR vendor.
MS: So GIPS is unique among codec vendors in offering indemnification?
JL: Yes, but we don’t see ourselves as a codec vendor. We offer broader solutions that have codecs as just one element, engines that have all the signal processing and code you need to handle an implementation of voice and video on a platform. That’s where the value is. And the codecs we indemnify as they are a part of that solution. You can also buy our codecs separately, and then we also indemnify. Since we sell a product rather than just supplying IP, people expect indemnification.