May 9, 2013

Codecs: Evolution versus Revolution

A new codec war is looming! The peaceful reign of H.264 is over, the end is nigh, and HEVC is ready to battle to prove its worth, steal the crown and prove itself the one true king (guess who just got caught up on Game of Thrones?). Except of course, none of this is true. The sky is not falling, the end is not near, and the Dothraki aren’t getting ready to storm anything.

For those who survived the codec wars of the early days, you are all too familiar with the conversations around whether VC-1 or H.264 would become the dominant way we delivered content. If you missed out on all the drama, VC-1 was a Microsoft-created and SMPTE-released standard that would successfully span online, broadcast, and physical media delivery. H.264 or MPEG-4 part 10 was an opposing standard that had a number of proponents (as part of the Joint Video Team or JVT), particularly in the Blu-ray realm. The creation of the iPhone and video support in iPods bolstered the H.264 side (and to be fair H.264 shares more than a little DNA with QuickTime) and ultimately made this a battle of Apple versus Microsoft. But in early 2008, HD-DVD (the bastion of VC-1 in the physical medium realm) ceded to Blu-ray and from that point onward, H.264 has pretty much been the de facto way to distribute digital video to a variety of platforms. Certainly it has had to continually defend that position by pretenders to the crown (how is WebM doing these days?), but in terms of adoption, H.264 has practically become a household name for content delivery.

And so here we are, the new revolution – except it isn’t. We’re just experiencing the evolution of a standard and the maturation of our industry. HEVC (or its other nom de guerre, H.265) adds features that simply didn’t exist in its predecessor. It improves the quality of the content we’re creating while driving down the bits required to do so (the exact same thing H.264 sought to do for MPEG-2) while increasing the maximum resolution out to 8K. HEVC is the next step in a natural progression that will help video providers keep costs down while delivering greater quality.

Anytime we see new technologies on the horizon, the “game” metaphor also appears – as in “is HEVC a game changer?” Perhaps it is, but I still don’t see it being the touchdown, hat trick, or even the layup that turns the industry from traditional broadcast to OTT. To be sure, it will contribute to changing trends, but it’s one of several industry improvements (along with a growing desire by the consumers for OTT solutions) that are driving the charge.

To be clear, while I may be raining on the parade of several marketing folk, believe me when I say I’m excited about HEVC arriving. It’s new and it’s shiny and it’s wonderful and it will be an improvement the online video community who will no doubt welcome it with open arms. But if you refer to it as “revolutionizing” your product, workflow, or the ecosystem at large, you’re guilty of employing hyperbole; confusing revolution with evolution and muddying the waters.

Recognized as a respected industry voice, Andy founded Techgeist, an online video consulting company, where he works on solutions that touch every part of the Over The Top distribution ecosystem. He has contributed articles to popular industry media outlets like FierceOnlineVideo, and authored Real World Video Compression, a book that explains the world of video in plain English. In 2011, Andy was named to Streaming Media’s All Star List and led his former company to its first Red Herring Top 100 North America award.

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