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Is it Time Yet for 4K, H.265, and VP9 Adoption? Not So Fast

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Where do we start a conversation about best practices for encoding in the first half of 2015? If you follow bleeding-edge streaming media news, you might believe that it’s time to start thinking about delivering 4K content using the latest crop of “codecs in testing”—H.265 and VP9. I feel that’s largely a distraction at this point in the game.

If the “un-plug-in” mobile browser world has taught us one thing about video, it is that a top priority should be to maximize ROI as much as possible from one codebase, one format, and one delivery mechanism with one business objective: to reach your target markets.

Sure, mobile browser fragmentation brings with it the reality of having more than one video format or delivery protocol to reach core markets. While a discussion of business drivers isn’t entirely absent from new technology conversations, I find it scary how often decision makers within companies are blinded by adoption of HTML5 or other “no Flash” technology approaches because they’d feel vulnerable otherwise.

So, let me get straight to the point: H.264 will and should be your primary focus for the foreseeable future of VOD encoding. Why? It has the widest adoption—across set-top boxes, smartphones, tablets, mobile browsers, desktop browsers—to date. Period. Sure, some browsers, such as Opera, don’t support H.264 (and likely won’t support H.265). If those browsers are worth accommodating, then you might need to take measures to add another format to satisfy requirements. On desktop, Adobe Flash Player is still a legitimate fallback in the browser tech stack. Most premium content offerings, especially for live video playback, require Flash for playback of DRM video. (This year’s Super Bowl, for example, didn’t use DASH.)

How you package your H.264 content is largely dependent on your business requirements. Of course, the MPEG-4 container for “straight up” HTTP downloads or range requests with HTML5 browsers or plugin-assisted playback accommodates the bulk of nonpremium content. For premium content, live streaming, and adaptive streaming (VOD or live), Apple HLS has become the de facto container for deployment within mobile browsers on Android devices (version 4.0 or higher) and on iOS. Most premium DRM strategies won’t work in a mobile browser, regardless of container, and will require native application support for implementation. Eventually, the Media Source Extensions (MSE) and Encrypted Media Extensions (EME) will make premium content delivery via DASH a reality within mobile browsers.

Where does that leave us with the next generation of video codecs? If you’re planning a long-term road map and want to be ready to hit the ground running with new video encoding solutions, researching the benefits of H.265 and VP9 should be on your to-do list.

Should you buy encoders that support these codecs right now?

That depends on your comfort level with development software. I prefer to test directly with source software development kits whenever possible, particularly x265 (or “libx265”) and VP9 (“libvpx”) within ffmpeg to test the quality and speed of these forthcoming options. Many commercial vendors already support these formats, and the latest version of your preferred encoding software may be ready to go. Should you be deploying content with these codecs now? I won’t recommend active deployment until there’s a critical mass of support available.

As a video solutions architect, I remember those days when my customers weren’t comfortable with releasing content that relied on a new video feature of Flash Player until 90 percent of the plug-in penetration was achieved. I encourage stakeholders of video content to take similar precautions whenever approaching the implementation of new video technology. Use technology when it satisfies core business requirements and your market has access to it.

This article appears in the May/June 2015 issue of Streaming Media as "4K, H.265, VP9 ... Not So Fast.”

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