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The Future's So Bright: H.264 Year in Review

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Every few months or so I visit about 50 high-profile websites to identify the codec that site is using and the data rate and resolution of the streaming video files. They’re the same sites you would visit if you wanted to get the lay of the land: for example, ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC, and ESPN on the media side and IBM, Cisco, Lockheed, Boeing, and Deloitte on the corporate side.

It’s an imperfect analysis in many ways. For example, I don’t count a site unless I can download a file and analyze it, which precludes many sites that use a streaming server. Nonetheless, the last time I ran the trial—November 2008—I downloaded 83 Flash files. I could only confirm one file as H.264: an HD preview from CBS. All the others were VP6 or even Sorenson Spark.

Next, I ran a quick survey of videos streamed by companies in the Dow Jones 30. I found only one—Wal-Mart—using H.264. Just before I sat down to write, I received a membership email from ESPN asking me to try its new-look website that used higher-resolution, higher-data rate Flash video—in VP6 format.

Clearly, H.264 has enjoyed wonderful success in the device market and for high-bitrate movie trailers. However, once the codec was adopted by Adobe, I expected a much faster conversion from VP6 to H.264. So I got on the phone and spoke with a number of publishers and consultants, as well as the H.264 licensing folks at MPEG LA.

I learned that there are multiple variables affecting H.264 adoption, such as comparative H.264/VP6 quality, the installed base of H.264-capable Flash players, potential royalty cost, and the future importance of distributing to mobile players. I also learned that with several of these variables, factors such as company structure and/or international distribution strategy, as well as the typical target viewer, could substantially impact the decision to adopt H.264 in both the short-term and the long-term.

Inertia and the Installed Base
Let’s start with a look at several factors that will necessarily change over time, such as the availability of encoding tools that produce H.264 for Flash content and the installed base of Flash players. Interestingly, while you don’t need a dedicated encoding tool to produce H.264 for Flash distribution (H.264 in an MP4 or MOV wrapper will do just fine), several producers I interviewed commented that they hadn’t changed over to H.264 because their primary encoding tool—typically, the Flash CS3 Video Encoder—didn’t offer an H.264 encoding option. Inertia is a powerful force, especially if you have a proven workflow. Many producers won’t switch over until their chosen encoding tool supports H.264.

Not surprisingly, one new feature in the Adobe Media Encoder CS4 is the option to produce F4V files, or Flash files encoded with H.264. Any producers who upgrade will soon be aware of this option. Interestingly, Adobe also enhanced VP6 encoding options with CS4, which now offers two-pass encoding and access to both VP6-S and VP6-E, making it a worthwhile upgrade even for VP6 producers.

Figure 1
Figure 1. The Adobe Media Encoder offers two Flash encoding options: FLV for VP6 encoding and F4V for H.264 encoding.

The lack of H.264 support in their encoding tools can excuse the casual producers, but the technology decision makers for the sites included in my survey can hardly be characterized as casual. For them, a key technology decision factor that is rapidly reaching the tipping point is the installed base of H.264-compatible players. The most recent numbers published by Adobe (www.adobe.com/products/player_census/flashplayer/version_penetration.html) show penetration of Flash Player 9.0.115 and above as 90% in the U.S. and Canada; 88.6% in the U.K., Germany, and France; and 88.3% in Japan. Depending upon your target customer and distribution strategy, this is either insufficient or more than enough.

Figure 2
Figure 2. Google Analytics confirming Adobe’s survey results

One early H.264 adopter is Hulu.com, an online video service that offers a large selection of videos from more than 50 content providers, including FOX, NBC Universal, MGM, Sony Pictures Television, and Warner Bros. Hulu presents most content first in VP6 format (640x360@700Kbps) with an option for viewers to upgrade to a 480p version produced in H.264 (720x480@1Mbps). The site also features an HD Gallery stocked with 720p clips encoded with H.264 at 2.5Mbps.

According to CTO and senior vice president of audience Eric Feng, Hulu deploys VP6 to support the company’s focus on ease of use and a seamless user experience. In short, it uses VP6 because everyone can play it. Then, for users seeking a higher-quality viewing experience, Hulu makes higher-resolution versions available in H.264. In the context of an entertainment site serving primarily consumers in their homes, this makes perfect sense since using H.264 is voluntary and users can upgrade to the latest Flash Player, if desired.

Figure 3
Figure 3. Hulu supplies 720p clips at 2.5Mbps that look stunning at full screen.

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