H.264 Begins Its Ascent

The signs are everywhere. Starting with IBC2004 in Amsterdam in early September, where Apple showed off an H.264 codec that yielded much better results than it did even at its impressive NAB debut, the general acceptance of H.264 as a viable standards-based alternative to proprietary codecs has been gathering steam.

Adoption of H.264 for videoconferencing systems from major players such as Tandberg and Polycom, as well as recent ratification of H.264 as a codec for next-generation HD-DVD and Blu-Ray disks, places H.264 alongside MPEG-2 and Windows Media 9 in terms of entertainment and broadcast industry acceptance. This ratification renders earlier speculation about the death of MPEG-4 and its H.264 video codec (also known as MPEG-4 Part 10 or AVC) not only premature but preposterous.

Add to these announcements and events the recent release of two technology previews. The first, by Main Concept, is a sequel to the initial H.264 encoder preview the firm launched earlier in 2004. While the initial preview yielded acceptable results, the second H.264 preview, which currently is available for download on the Main Concept Web site, is capable of much better results in the equivalent bandwidth/disk space.

The second notable release, by Moonlight Digital, is actually a shipping product. Moonlight, an Israeli company that has a history in developing codecs for set-top boxes, has released the Moonlight AVC One-Click Compressor, a standalone program that converts live video and audio feeds (analog or DV), uncompressed AVI files, and MiniDV tapes to H.264 in real time. The AVC One-Click Compressor sells for less than $30 and can be played back using either Moonlight’s Elecard H.264 player (a 21-day evaluation is available) or Windows Media Player (via an H.264 plug-in).

Apple is also expected to raise the bar for H.264 within the next two weeks, as it showcases its H.264 codec at MacWorld San Francisco on January 11. The hype already has begun, with Frank Casanova, senior director of product marketing for Apple’s interactive media group, saying that the H.264 AVC "is unlike anything people have seen, from a quality and scalability point of view." Casanova also stated, according to a recent article in the Hollywood Reporter, that "QuickTime users will get the H.264 upgrade for free when the software is upgraded next year." Set to be released as part of Apple’s upgraded operating system, Mac OS X 10.4 (aka "Tiger"), the upgraded QuickTime is expect to support both the H.264 video codec and the new high-efficiency AAC audio codec (sometimes also referred to as HE-AAC, AAC+ or AAC Plus).

Will other players in the streaming space make provision for the use of H.264 alongside Real 10 and WindowsMedia 9? And will H.264 resurrect Apple’s somewhat limited streaming success, matching the quality for which QuickTime has been known in the progressive download category?

The answer to both of these questions appears to be "yes." When Apple shifted toward an open-standards strategy by fully embracing MPEG-4—which was based in part on QuickTime—it gained market share in emerging mobile computing and telephony markets such as the Pacific Rim. This market share may enable H.264’s inclusion in QuickTime to solidify Apple’s position in these markets. In fact, recent announcements from the 3GPP partnership regarding the inclusion of H.264 as an option in release 6 of its spec indicate that H.264 will ride the coattails of QuickTime’s established base in newer phones that have enough processing power to decode H.264.

In the broadcast streaming space, another indicator of H.264’s ascendancy is the fact that iVast, now operating under the DG2L moniker, recently announced that its new Phoenix MPEG-4 hardware encoder/decoder will "support upgrade options for real-time encoding of next-generation video codecs, including MPEG-4 Part 10 (H.264/AVC) and WM9 advanced". This is a marked shift from previous comments by Ben Silva, the company’s executive VP of worldwide sales and business development, that the North American market was not ready for or could not sustain MPEG-4.

The next few months are critical for H.264 proponents, as claims about the scalability of H.264 from mobile telephony to high-definition broadcast need to be proven. Specifically, advocates will need to prove to skeptical users and developers that one codec has the potential to replace multiple codecs, scaling the spectrum from low-bandwidth to very high bandwidth while simultaneously encompassing videoconferencing, streaming, progressive downloads and physical media playback. If H.264 lives up to Casanova’s expectations, it will provide added ammunition in the open versus proprietary codec debate, perhaps disproving the notion that only proprietary codecs can push the leading edge of the quality-to-bandwidth ratio.

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