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Apple Supports H.265, But So Far Only in FaceTime on an iPhone 6

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Since I own an iPhone 6, I should have noticed this earlier, but I just learned that Apple is using H.265 in FaceTime on the new models. Note that the unit’s video playback specs don’t mention H.265, so presumably users can’t stream or even play HEVC-encoded video outside of the FaceTime environment. We tried uploading an HEVC stream in the MP4 container format to an iPhone 6, but it wouldn’t load into iTunes.

That said, though limited in its initial scope, Apple’s decision should ripple large over the Apple ecosystem and mobile landscape in general. According to several sources, HEVC encode/decode is built into the A8 SOC CPU that powers the phone. Once the license is paid for a particular iPhone or iPad, it should be free for Apple to deploy HEVC encode/decode for other purposes within that device, such as for recording or playback using one of the two cameras, or playing back HEVC-encoded videos delivered via the web or iTunes.

Like H264, HEVC is subject to a maximum per company royalty per year. For HEVC it’s $25 million per year. Once reached, additional deployments of HEVC encode/decode are essentially free. Apple would need to ship 125 million units to reach the maximum, which it might do on iPhones and iPads alone in 12 months. That done, Apple can include HEVC encode/decode in QuickTime, the Mac OS, Compressor, iBooks Author, FCPX, or any other application or device (such as a watch?) for free.

Google is also moving towards HEVC encode/decode by adding hooks in the new Android 5.0 release to access HEVC encode/decode available in upcoming phone and tablet CPUs. It also added an actual software HEVC decoder to Lollipop, which is from Ittiam Systems. Google’s deployment is subject to the same cap as Apple's, so assuming that Google will ship 25 million versions of Android, including HEVC playback in Chrome is essentially free.

Obviously, Google’s hybrid approach will benefit both new buyers of devices with HEVC encode/decode hardware, and the installed base of existing devices that upgrade to Android 5. At this point, CPU and battery use of the software-only HEVC decode function remains to be seen. Since Apple’s approach is hardware-based, users will have to upgrade to the new devices to achieve HEVC playback. Either way, there are hundreds of millions of relevant devices that will never play HEVC, so producers that support HEVC are looking at a long cycle of supporting both H.264 and HEVC.

What’s ironic, of course, is that while both major mobile platforms are moving to enable HEVC, HEVC support is still nowhere on desktops and notebooks. Apple hasn’t announced support in Safari, nor has Microsoft for Internet Explorer, while Chrome, Firefox, and Opera all support VP9 and not HEVC. Unlike mobile devices, most computers shipped in the last few years have the CPU power to decode HEVC, and battery life is obviously much less an issue. So while the HEVC floodgates are now officially open on mobile devices, we still await the first crack in the dike for desktops and notebooks.

[Editor's Note: After publishing this story, we noticed that Microsoft intends to include HEVC with Windows 10, which is scheduled for release in 2015. Following the logic from above, this may speed HEVC’s inclusion in Internet Explorer around the same time, though hopefully much sooner.

Also, in the initial article, Ozer reported that Intel had supplied the HEVC software decoder for Android, but that he had not been able to confirm this. After publication, he was informed that Ittiam supplied the software, which is decode only.]

The author FaceTiming with his daughter, using HEVC.

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