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

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Representing the business audience distributing to the locked-down corporate desktop is Nico McLane, a Streaming Media All-Star who previously worked at JPMorgan Chase and now runs a conference center at 52 Broadway, a building in the heart of the Wall Street district, for the American Movie Co. While I was chatting with McLane, she sent me a copy of Google Analytics for the America Movie Co. website, which roughly confirmed the Adobe numbers, with about 11% of visitors not having a known compatible player. This figure included 31 viewers whose players were unknown because the information was blocked.

However, when choosing a codec, McLane doesn’t focus on the 90% of viewers who can watch H.264 videos; she focuses on the 10% who can’t watch them and either can’t or won’t upgrade their players. If these are paying customers or even high-value prospects, their inability to watch the video can be a significant blow to overall event ROI.

McLane also highlights the importance of deploying tried-and-true technology in the corporate environment rather than the latest and greatest. Her example is a known—and since fixed—issue (1688970) that prevented certain Flash players from playing H.264-encoded video streamed with either the Flash Media Interactive Server 3 or Flash Media Streaming Server 3. At best, attempting to deploy H.264 video with the bug present would have caused a lengthy debug cycle; at worst, it could have been a catastrophe in the making. McLane isn’t pointing fingers at Adobe since these types of issues are inevitable in all new technology releases. Rather, her point is that it’s often prudent for those who serve corporate customers to be technology laggards in order to ensure the smoothest possible product rollout.

That said, even in consumer applications, ensuring compatibility with a vast majority of viewers is absolutely critical. According to Feng, Hulu wouldn’t recommend a complete migration to H.264 until the penetration of H.264-capable players is greater than 98%.

The Quality Comparison
Where does quality factor into the VP6-to-H.264 migration? I had always considered quality relatively neutral in the H.264 adoption decision, though this isn’t a simple analysis. For example, when comparing H.264 and VP6 quality, remember that while VP6 encoding quality is consistent over most encoders, H.264 varies wildly depending upon the encoder, primarily because there are multiple H.264 codecs available; some of them produce comparatively poor quality. Even with a high-quality encoder, H.264 quality can vary significantly depending upon the selected encoding parameters.

Taking all that into account, in my tests, the best-quality H.264 enjoyed a slight advantage over VP6 in quality, though it was nothing to switch codecs over, particularly if you’re producing H.264 with a suboptimal encoder (check out "2009 Encoder Shootout," pp. 66–71 to see the comparative H.264 performance of sub-$1,000 encoding tools). However, my tests considered only video played back at 100% resolution, not video zoomed to full screen; and I didn’t factor in audio quality. Bringing full-screen video and audio into the equation, Hulu’s Feng gives H.264 a 2-1 edge over VP6.

While I agree on audio, I’m not sure I agree on a 2-1 advantage for video, though I’d be the first to admit that Feng and his encoding team have seen a much broader cross-section of video and much more volume than I ever will. Still, we can agree that AAC audio is a superior solution to MP3 on the audio side, and in most applications, H.264 video quality at least equals, and usually exceeds, VP6 quality.

Since there’s been lots of fear, uncertainty, and doubt spewed by other codec vendors about H.264’s decode complexity, let me add that in browser-based playback comparisons, the highest-quality H.264 streams usually required less CPU horsepower to decode than VP6 (and VC-1 for that matter). If you’re switching over from either VP6 or VC-1, deploying H.264 doesn’t mean that you have to abandon the lower-power computer users in your target audience. (See "Decoding the Truth About Hi-Def Video Production" at www.streamingmedia.com/article.asp?id=10776 for details.)

Royalties
The final factor that may be slowing H.264 adoption is the potential for royalty payments starting in 2011. This became a major issue during a recent consulting engagement I had with a multinational equipment manufacturer. Let’s start with what we know and why it was so scary for my client; then, I’ll recount a conversation that I had with Allen Harkness, director of licensing for MPEG LA.

Briefly, MPEG LA represents the patent holders of AVC/H.264 technologies. It is the sole licensing authority for the technology. Typical customers include consumer equipment manufacturers (Blu-ray Disc players and recorders), software developers (encoding programs, DVD players), and content developers. According to the "Summary of AVC/H.264 License Terms," which you can download from the MPEG LA site (www.mpegla.com/ avc/avc-agreement.cfm), there are no royalties for free internet broadcast (there are, however, royalties for pay-per-view or subscription video) until Dec. 31, 2010. After that, "the royalty shall be no more than the economic equivalent of royalties payable during the same time for free television."

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