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Commentary: H.264 Video—The Format of Convergence

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This Industry Perspectives column will appear in the October/November issue of Streaming Media magazine. Click here for your free subscription.Fifteen years ago, I remember talking with colleagues about a future world of multimedia where our TVs, video disc players, computers, camcorders, and portable media players would all share video using common digital formats, media, and connections. Today, we’re finally at a point where we can see the pieces coming together to form a naturally expanding ecosystem based on a common digital video encoding format: H.264.

The Benefits of a Common Format
A common encoding format enables content created for one type of device to be easily delivered or adapted to another. A standard open format drives competition and reduces the cost of devices, thereby expanding the addressable market in a virtuous cycle. With a common format, consumers and businesses are encouraged to create and share more media, knowing that broad distribution and consumption is possible. Because of this, consumers, media companies, and vendors alike all benefit from increased growth, innovation, and choice.

Cross-Platform Support is Critical
Media companies only wish to support formats that are accessible by any potential viewer, regardless of which playback platform the viewer has chosen. This offers them the largest potential audience. For this reason, media companies seek consistent cross-platform support.

Adobe Flash Video—which has been a critical enabler in the explosion of video on the web—exemplifies strong cross-platform support. I believe that Adobe’s consistent high-quality implementation of Flash Video on both Windows and Macs is a key reason for Flash Video’s near-ubiquitous adoption by web video sites. In contrast, I believe that the limited-effort cross platform support that Microsoft gives to Windows Media on Mac and Apple gives to QuickTime on Windows is the reason these formats have not achieved similar adoption by video providers.

However, in an all-digital world, cross-platform support means more than just the PC. For video in particular, there is great need to also include TVs, set-top-boxes, game consoles, mobile devices, and portable media players. Video content is the biggest driver of consumer entertainment electronics, and so any video encoding format that is not also supported on consumer electronics devices is doomed to niche status.

Today, Adobe Flash is based on video encoding technology from On2 Technologies known as VP6. While VP6-based Flash video is a standard for the web, it’s not quite the encoding format of choice for consumer electronics devices (lack of silicon support is one reason; another is because it’s a proprietary, unpublished format) and so it cannot achieve the full vision of convergence.

But, in the last few years, a new internationally standardized encoding format known as H.264 (also known as AVC) has emerged and is poised to be a ubiquitous standard format. H.264 is already supported by many consumer electronics products, professional production tools, smartphones, wireless services, and IP set-top-boxes (STB). Most recently, Adobe announced full support for H.264 as a native format for Flash, and Google plans to transcode all of its YouTube content to H.264.

It’s the combination of H.264 standardization, support by the leading Internet players and adoption by professional and consumer products and services, all added together, that creates a safe and stable cross-platform video format for all key platforms. With support from PCs and consumer products tied together by H.264-compliant professional products and internet delivery platforms, we will see rapid innovation leading to exciting new products and services.

The specification for H.264 was finalized by a joint committee of participants from the International Telecommunication Union and MPEG communities in May, 2003. As compared to MPEG-2 (the format of traditional digital television and DVDs), H.264 offers 2-3 times greater compression, making it much more attractive for network delivery as well as for high-definition video.

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