H.264 - The Success Story
Some technologies like DVD, CD, TV and the PC prove themselves over time. They are practical, flexible, reliable - even universal. Is H.264 one of those magic bullet technologies?
H.264, also known as MPEG-4 Part 10 or AVC, is the video codec that has taken the broadcast and consumer world by storm.
In 2008, Anthony Rose, former Head of Digital Media, BBC Future Media & Technology, announced that BBC iPlayer was moving to H.264. The codec is currently almost universally supported so iPlayer can be watched by millions on computers, gaming devices, phones or iPads. A triumph for H.264.
Beyond streaming, the codec is a runaway success. Consumers have H.264 functionality in Blu-ray, camcorders, computers and phones; business has H.264 in CCTV and videoconferencing, and broadcast is immersed in the codec via Sony's NXCAM, Panasonic's AVCCAM and AVC-Intra products.
Does H.264 merit this success? Barry Green of DVX User tested the Sony XDCAM-EX MPEG 2 format (35Mbps) against the AVCCAM H.264 format. His conclusions were startling:
"AVCCAM's 21Mbps PH mode is a clearly superior codec over XDCAM EX. No question, no argument, no doubt. While XDCAM kept up with AVCCAM in almost all the testing, it took nearly 70% more space to do it. And then there were the codec-stress times when AVCCAM was just significantly superior."
Dane Streeter, Technical Director of Sharpstream sums it up dryly: "H.264 handles the realities of limited storage and bandwidth, as well as the fundamental need for high quality media."
H.264 & HTML5 - A Promising Marriage
HTML5 is an attempt to rationalise and standardise existing web languages, improve document, forms and error handling and simplify the integration of multimedia into sites.
As the Internet enters its next stage with HTML5, streaming is already ubiquitous. The main benefits of HTML5 from a consumer perspective will be on the enhanced multimedia experience of web browsing - in particular, a move away from third party video players.
HTML5 sites are already online. In January 2010, YouTube launched an experimental HTML5 version of its site which enables H.264 videos to be viewed without requiring Flash or any other plug-in. Vimeo's HTML5 beta -site soon followed suit. To see a stylish HTML5 example, visit www.gianlucaguarini.com.
HTML5 aspires to deliver a simplified, seamless, cross-platform experience, without proprietary players, but it won't necessarily bring significant speed or performance increases. For services such as Vimeo and YouTube, HTML5 video may help them load a little quicker but they will still download use progressive download to draw down the entire movie to a device before users can jump to different parts of the video without buffering.
Supporting the player-free, video-everywhere aspiration, in November 2010 Microsoft's Steve Ballmer noted, "If you want to do something that is universal, there is no question the world is going HTML5."
So all hail HTML5 delivering a universal, player-free H.264 video experience. Good news for content owners and audiences alike.
H.264 - the doubts emerge
Less than two months after Ballmer's (now rather glib-sounding) comment, Google broke ranks, stating that it would be dropping support of H.264 in its Chrome browser, preferring its own codec, WebM. To its critics, Google was shamelessly contravening its own motto: "don't be evil."
The guru Jan Ozer, writing on Streamingmedia.com was blunt:
"With WebM, Google hasn't created any new revenue opportunities, opened any new markets or increased the size of the pie. They've just made it more expensive to get your share..."
Google owns YouTube... so this is big news. The American web-giant moved quickly to make its intentions clear: it has already transcoded all popular YouTube videos to WebM. All uploaded files with resolutions from 720p and above are now encoded to WebM.
Why has Google taken this position? Simply its abandonment of H.264 is down to money. At any point the licence body, the MPEG LA, could have imposed crippling costs on YouTube for its use of H.264. Instead of reaching an agreement, Google opened its own codec to the market as an open source format. And instantly muddied the waters.
For Streeter, the benefit of HTML5 - a player-free experience - is now some way off: "Until all browsers and devices all support the same video format, this has become a pipe dream."
Content versus Delivery
There is no question about H.264's capabilities. It supports multi-channel audio, multi-resolution video, near lossless 4:4:4 coding, stereoscopic 3D and scalable video coding. The CDN (content delivery network) market has longed to focus on a single, sophisticated format like H.264 to develop these features into their core streaming services. Now they fear investing in the wrong format.
So beneath the patina of tranquillity, we have a situation that is hampering innovation in streaming. H.264 was always open to the vagueries of its licensing body, making developers and content owners cautious. WebM may be open source but in the short term (at least) adopting it alongside H.264 would mean encoding and storing content twice. With different web browsers now supporting competing formats, the nirvana of player-free online media is still mythically unrealistic.
For a fast, uninterrupted service, professionals will still be able to turn to specialist platforms like Akamai, Level3 and Sharpstream - whether it's delivered in a player or not. The hope remains for these companies that HTML5 will adopt a single codec enabling them to focus on platform development and infrastructure investment and not be continually concerned about ensuring support for many formats.