By Fabio Murra
Historically, the arrival of a new codec has had a major impact on content delivery and a variety of related video services and devices. Both MPEG-1 and 2 signalled the beginning of the digital era, enabling video discs and the multi-channel digital TV revolution.
Newer standards such as H.264 offered the step-change required to broadcast HD channels, produce the highest quality Blu-Ray content and enable streaming via the Internet.
However, times have changed and the era of the single codec has disappeared. Today’s new kid on the block, AV1 — the codec of the Alliance for Open Media — is born out of the consolidation of a number of standardisation bodies and is poised to enter a complex market where a number of credible alternatives, beyond the ubiquitous H.264, already exist: HEVC/H.265, VP9 and PERSEUS.
AV1 has certainly grabbed headlines by touting a royalty-free model, while the market has continued to debate an uncertain licensing model for HEVC/H.265.
This is, however, merely one element to be considered when planning for the deployment of a new codec technology. Similarly, the fact that the implementation of royalty-free technologies by third-party vendors comes at a cost (either per channel, per encoder or per hour of transcoding, for example) is also largely irrelevant.
In fact, the biggest hurdle to adoption for a new codec is compatibility with the playback device ecosystem. To date, AV1 is only supported, with some minor exceptions, by the newest Mozilla browser, while anything that requires native playback will be required to wait for hardware with built-in decoding capabilities.
The fact that Apple has joined the Alliance for Open Media is a signal that this will happen in due course, although it will be a lengthy process that could take many years to come to fruition.
AV1 can certainly count on a potentially large and captive audience, especially with heavyweight players such as Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google and Netflix already in the consortium. Today, Google is the most notable user of AV1’s closest sibling, VP9, via its user-generated content service, YouTube.
However, traditional broadcasters with established workflows have yet to be convinced, having built a broad ecosystem of MPEG codec support, from MPEG-2, through H.264, and albeit slowly, towards HEVC/H.265. There are also new codec approaches to consider, such as PERSEUS from V-Nova.
In its PERSEUS Plus format, it provides the ability to work in conjunction with any other codec of choice, providing distinct advantages in terms of device compatibility, performance and efficiency. This novel approach allows services to leverage the performance of existing hardware, whether on a set-top box, PC or mobile device, to deliver on the promises of next-generation codecs today.
It is clear that AV1 will come to have its place in the ecosystem of video service delivery, predominantly through video streaming.
However, with the current pace of change the media industry is experiencing, many operators must be mindful that if they want to progress from an idea to a viable service launch, they need to consider the implications of complex integration work, maintenance and testing that any codec deployment will entail.
Most importantly, they must consider the compatibility of their chosen codec with the ecosystem of consumer devices in order to ensure success, because no matter how much efficiency change a new codec offers, it is redundant if it does that alone.