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Commentary: Microsoft Should Embrace H.264

One of the more intriguing rumors to come out of Streaming Media East was that Microsoft was going to add H.264 playback to Silverlight and/or the Windows Media Player. The idea made so much sense that it was instantly believable, but Microsoft has denied the rumor’s veracity, repeatedly saying "I have not had sex with that woman" in a vaguely southern accent. Or at least that’s what I keep hearing. In this column, I’ll lay out the reasons that Microsoft should consider adding H.264 support in Silverlight and Media Player and dropping continued development of VC-1.

First, in every codec quality test I’ve performed since ’06, VC-1 has rated last, often by a significant margin. Note that in each instance, Microsoft has overseen some aspect of the tests, including actually producing the comparative files for the tests I performed back in 2006 (when VC-1 was still WMV). In my most recent tests, which involved SD, HD, and screencam-based video, H.264 quality was noticeably higher than VC-1, as was the quality of VP6, particularly with the quality updates that On2 announced at the show. You can see some of the results in the downloadable presentation available here.

As part of these tests, I also measured the CPU utilization consumed during playback of these files on several relatively low power platforms, both Windows and Macintosh. With SD videos, the horsepower required to playback H.264 video producing using the Main profile didn’t significantly vary from that required for VC-1.

When testing 720p video, I recommended producing H.264 with the Baseline profile to minimize the required playback horsepower, and H.264 quality was still higher than VC-1. On two of three computers, processor utilization recorded while playing back these files was within 2-3% of the processor power utilized by VC-1. In short, in most tests, H.264 produced better quality and didn’t require significantly more processor horsepower to display.

If VC-1 was a superior technology that offered Microsoft customers a substantial advantage over H.264, I’d say keep competing and let the best technology win. On the other hand, given these facts, and those presented below, I don’t see any reason for Microsoft to continue to attempt to advance VC-1.

The second reason Microsoft should adopt H.264 is because the mobile device market will thrive best with a single standard and H.264 makes the most sense, having been adopted by both International Standards Organization (ISO) and International Telecommunications Union (ITU), which pretty much guarantees dominance in the broadcast and video conferencing markets. Success in these markets lets chip vendors focus their efforts on producing inexpensive H.264 decoders, decreasing the cost of video enabled phones and ultimately driving competing technologies out of the market.

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