Which of these standards will successfully slash video bandwidth requirements?

Google generated a lot of buzz for VP9 at its recent I/O developer conference, but the the principal of StreamingMedia.com says HVEC will offer stiff competition on the compression front

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A video-compression battle is brewing between a new Google-backed technology and an equally powerful competing standard. While both technologies promise to slash bandwidth requirements by half, one analyst suggests Google might lose this war. The competing technology has momentum that the Internet juggernaut will be hard pressed to match.

Reporting from Google’s I/O developer conference last month, CNET and other news outlets joined in the buzz building around VP9. This new compression technology would reduce the amount of bandwidth needed for online video transmissions by 50 percent. Built into Google’s Chrome Internet browser (which is installed on 750 million computers worldwide), VP9 could pave the way for more online high-definition video use and increase video communications for Canadian organizations.

But the web titan faces serious competition from High Efficiency Video Coding (HEVC). Like VP9, this standard chops video bandwidth requirements by 30 to 50 percent.

So which technology should developers use? Jan Ozer, principal consultant at StreamingMedia.com and author of Producing Streaming Video for Multiple Screen Delivery, figures HEVC is the better bet.

Patent challenge

VP9 has a few chinks in its armour, he says. For instance, its predecessor, VP8, is enmeshed in a patent punch-up that could stymie VP9’s advance. Specifically, mobile phone firm Nokia argues that VP8 infringes its video patents. Ozer says this feud raises a crucial question: will VP8 and VP9 remain royalty free, or will companies that use either technology have to pay Nokia for the privilege?

HEVC’s predecessor, H.264 (a.k.a. Advanced Video Coding or AVC), is royalty free and better established than VP8. But Ozer says that doesn’t necessarily mean HEVC will be royalty free as well. Indeed, the fact that H.264 was made royalty free might make it more likely that HEVC will have a royalty system after all.

Ozer explains that MPEG LA, the organization that oversees various patents for technology standards, originally planned to establish a royalty mechanism for H.264. But a few years ago, MPEG LA announced that H.264 would be royalty free forever. Now, companies that contributed to H.264’s development—and lost out on the spoils in its heyday—may insist on royalties for HEVC.

These royalty challenges make it difficult for anyone to predict which technology will prevail. “If you took away the patent issues, VP9 would be a viable alternative,” Ozer says. He adds that VP9 has something VP8 lacked: perfect timing. VP9 arrives alongside HEVC, whereas VP8 arrived years behind H.264. H.264 had a serious head start and VP8 simply never caught up.

“But at this point, the market is very confused,” he says.

HEVC’s advantage

Ozer is still betting on HEVC. Even though VP9 is driven by an influential web company, “standards usually win,” and HEVC is a standard developed by various organizations including the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and the Moving Pictures Experts Group (MPEG). With standards, more organizations are involved in development, so the technology kicks off with more momentum.

Clearly, the battle is most concentrated on the patent front. Organizations looking to benefit from streamlined web video transmissions should wait to see how that particular clash ends before committing to either HEVC or VP9.

To get a better sense of how important video is becoming in Canada, download the case study featuring UBC’s use of videoconferencing in its med school. 

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