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Is Apple's Move to HEVC About Effectiveness or Efficiency?

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By now, if you’re an adventurous Apple iPhone or Mac user, you’ve probably downloaded the public beta of iOS 11 or macOS High Sierra (the product formerly known as OS X “ten” until it passed OS X 10.10 and Apple needed to differentiate it from iOS 10).

If you’ve ventured into the AppleSeed beta program, you know that one of the key features is the use of high-efficiency video coding (HEVC, aka H.265) for late-model Macs and iDevices.

Only a handful of desktop and laptop Macs that ran macOS Sierra (10.12) won’t support macOS High Sierra (10.13), and the reason primarily centers on the older Macs’ inability to play back HEVC content.

That brings to mind an interesting stream of thought: Is the move to HEVC about efficiency or effectiveness? Or is it efficiency in spite of effectiveness?

Don’t get me wrong: The efficiency argument is appealing. Better compression leads to smaller file sizes and lower overall bandwidths for equivalent quality. At least that’s the initial pitch, based on an assumption that almost everyone is content with today’s video image quality.

The corollary is also (almost) true: At today’s AVC (H.264) bandwidths, it is possible to get a higher-quality video image if HEVC is used. I say “almost” because tests do show that a significant percentage of AVC content does not necessarily encode more efficiently (or yield better image quality) when encoded in HEVC.

To be fair, though, these comparison tests are focused on 1080p content, and the need to use HEVC (or even the upcoming AV1 codec) for 4K content is somewhat indisputable at least for fine-detail, high-frame-rate use cases like sports.

Still, the lower-bandwidth promise is there, allowing mobile service providers to take their foot off the “More bandwidth, stat!” pedal and to contemplate what the next step in mobile delivery should be: 4K, virtual reality video, or higher frame rates and dynamic ranges?

On the other hand, there’s the issue of effectiveness. By effectiveness, I mean the ability to effectively reach as wide an audience as possible with better compression without sacrificing so many devices on the altar of “outdated tech” that we make the new technology ineffective in terms of overall audience reach.

The counterargument here goes something like this: If the benefit of HEVC is only for 4K or other exotic types of video delivery (e.g., VR video, 360° video, etc.), then we really aren’t sacrificing many devices, since the majority of those devices could only play 720p or 1080p content. Those who want to see 4K will buy a 4K-capable device, and those who want to see VR video will end up with a completely different screen or form factor.

There’s merit to this counterargument, but it starts from a worldview that may be somewhat myopic, one that says better compression requires more robust hardware for encoding and decoding.

As a counter-counterargument, consider the innovation of the On2 VPx series of codecs from about a decade ago (with the banner carried on by Google in recent years). Whether or not you liked the older On2 codecs (VP6, VP7, etc.), the worldview was very different. Success was based on the ability to gain better efficiency while at the same time actually lowering the bar for entry. In other words, getting better compression and a greater number of devices, rather than a smaller number of devices.

To me, this is where the innovation opportunity remains strong: For all those fully functional devices that are being abandoned in the move to higher efficiency compression in the form of HEVC, there’s an opportunity to provide better compression through AVC gains or even alternate codecs like VP9 and AV1.

The next few months will be a harbinger for the next decade of compression. If the efficiencies of AVC are not improved for 720p and 1080p content, there’s a high likelihood that consumers will be forced into purchasing new phones, tablets, and computers just to keep up with the hardware requirements of HEVC. And that would be a disservice to all parties.

[This article appears in the September 2017 issue of Streaming Media Magazine as "Effective or Efficient?"]

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