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Commentary: Microsoft Should Embrace H.264

Since VC-1 will likely fail in the device market, why continue to push in streaming? All this does is force publishers seeking to stream to both computers and devices (like NBC and the upcoming Olympics) to encode using two different codecs, needlessly increasing production costs. Since video playback in the device market is currently scattered among H.264, Flash Lite, and WMV, supporting multiple codecs is necessary today, but should it be in the future?

Third, Silverlight looks like a very promising technology, and it’s a shame to saddle it with a codec that can’t match the quality of either of the two codecs available in Flash. This is especially true given that the success of Silverlight is much more strategically important to MS than the success of VC-1. Why make Silverlight’s success dependent upon VC-1? Would anyone think less of Silverlight if it used H.264 instead of or in addition to VC-1? If anything, the reverse is true; the market would laud Microsoft for adapting open standards.

And puh-leeze, don’t even tell me that VC-1 is "standard" itself since it’s been adapted by SMPTE for HD set top players. True, VC-1 playback is required in all Blu-ray players. On the other hand, I’ve reviewed every consumer and prosumer Blu-ray authoring program available, and none of them enable VC-1 HD encoding, while all use both the H.264 and MPEG-2 codec.

Why not VC-1? I’ve spoken to several product managers in the authoring space who reported that they haven’t enabled VC-1 because customers haven’t been asking for it. Which brings me to my last point.

We’ve been comparing codecs in the streaming space since the market began, a tempest in teapot often fueled by outrageous vendor claims and enthusiast opinions. But the great unwashed, those who pay our bills, couldn’t care less. If anything, they would prefer not to need the five or six players that are today required to play internet-based and other video content. After all, when was the last time you heard TV viewers even comment about the MPEG-2 codec that fuels most cable TV?

Back in the day, the streaming market was the Wild, Wild West and codec gunfights were popular contests enjoyed by a majority of those who actually watched streaming video. Today, streaming is mainstream, and should be less about the technology and more about the experience. Agreeing on a single codec for all streaming—computer and device—would simplify life for consumers and producers alike, and advance the streaming market.

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