NEW YORK—The compression algorithm at the center of HBO’s “Silicon Valley” has put a spotlight on an important part of the life of the internet. Compression is necessary to make files smaller so they can be downloaded and stored easily enough to make video streaming possible.
However, the show’s wannabe entrepreneurs keep failing to turn their creations into a viable product. In real life, however, developers at companies like Google and Netflix are having a much more success creating and using next-generation compression algorithms and codecs (encoders/decoders) for streaming video.
The fact that more than three-quarters of all internet traffic will be video within five years shows the importance of video compression codecs that can take advantage of all sorts of platforms, from Smart TVs to smartphones, in any geographic area, and with any type of connectivity.
At the recent Streaming Media East Conference here, Matt Frost, Head of Strategy and Partnerships for Google Chrome Media, shared an update of what Google is working on to make the future of streaming possible.
First, some background: The video compression standard H.264, also known as AVC (Advanced Video Coding), has been the workhorse codec for broadcasters, internet streamers and video producers around the world for the past decade. Users can see what codec is being used to compress video on YouTube by right-clicking on any video and selecting “Stats for nerds.”
Now, with Ultra HD and 4K content becoming more popular, new advanced compression codecs have become necessary, most notably the next-generation standard H.265, also known as HEVC (High Efficiency Video Coding). H.265 makes considerable gains on H.264, by shrinking files and improving quality, but the standard has been the subject of controversy over royalty payments for its use.
Google changed the game in 2013 when it released VP9, a royalty-free codec, under the auspices of the open source WebM Project. VP9 is being adopted quickly and is now the primary codec for video of all resolution types on YouTube, compressing billions of hours of video a year. VP9 is supported by Android phones and the Chrome, Firefox, Opera and Edge browsers.
“VP9 is an enabler of new 4K and HFR [high-frame rate] HD experiences,” Frost said. “Current technologies [such as VP9] are absolutely necessary to enable cutting-edge high-resolution experiences over traditional consumer broadband connections.”
As Google began work on VP9’s follow-up, VP10, it decided to team up with others working on their own next-generation codecs, particularly Mozilla’s Daala and Cisco’s Thor projects. Together with Microsoft, Intel, Netflix, Amazon and others, they formed the Alliance for Open Media (AOM) in 2015 and rolled their collective codec work into the next-generation AV1 (AOMedia Video 1) codec.
The AV1 code is not quite finished but is due to be frozen late this year. One company, Bitmovin, has already productized an early version of AV1, which was demonstrated at this year’s NAB and won a Best in Show prize.
Open Source Codecs Not for Everybody
Given the performance and free-use license of the VP9 and AV1 codecs, it would seem a no-brainer for all video producers to embrace the new formats. But there are still many holdouts, which has more to do with culture wars in broadcasting than in technology. Many broadcasters, for instance, feel much more comfortable with industry-approved standards that are good enough and don’t change that often.
But the speed of innovation and open source development waits for no standard, said Frost. “There is an increasing openness to working together on developing codecs that can be rapidly implemented with license terms that are easy to understand,” Frost said.
“It makes sense to cooperate to develop those technologies quickly so we can all then build products and services that benefit from them,” he added. “We achieve with this rapid innovation by breaking free of the traditional standards process which involves quarterly meetings at sites around the globe and that pulls engineers who are involved in this process away from their teams and their desks for well over a month of the year for travel time and meeting time.”
Netflix is a recent and aggressive convert to VP9, Frost said. It has now begun using VP9 for mobile, lower-resolution content and downloadable content. Netflix also has said it will be a “very early adopter of AV1” across its services as soon as it is finalized, Frost said.
Of key importance is using VP9 and AV1 to enable content to reach consumers where phones and internet connectivity is poor. “It’s in emerging markets where users suffer from severe bandwidth constraints and are getting really marginal YouTube experiences where we see the most profound effects [of VP9],” Frost said.
“In those areas where we are seeing the next billion users come online and in emerging markets like Brazil, India and Indonesia we’re seeing 10s of percentage points in increase of watch time with YouTube video in VP9 compared with 264.”
Scot Petersen is a technology analyst at Ziff Brothers Investments, a private investment firm. He has an extensive background in the technology field. Prior to joining Ziff Brothers, Scot was the editorial director, Business Applications & Architecture, at TechTarget. Before that, he was the director, Editorial Operations, at Ziff Davis Enterprise. While at Ziff Davis Media, he was a writer and editor at eWEEK. No investment advice is offered in his blog. All duties are disclaimed. Scot works for a private investment firm, which may at any time invest in companies whose products are discussed in this blog, and no disclosure of securities transactions will be made.