Headlines of the last 12 months in the video encoder world have somewhat been dominated by three letters – AV1. That has led to a whole lot of discussion about the codec wars that are taking place with the Alliance for Open Media on one side and HEVC on the other.
On May 9th 2018, I took part in a panel discussion at the TV Connect Conference addressing this particularly after the big launch of AV1 from the Alliance for Open Media back before NAB in March, and its coming out party at NAB in April. Hell I went along to the launch party myself, and I have the stickers and T-shirt to prove it.
The panel was representative of the key parts of the TV industry, with content provider/streaming platform operators (Jeff Web of Sky and Abi Bhat of Dazn) mixing it up with encoder (Dror Gill of Beamr) and codec vendors (Guido Meardi of V-Nova) as well as myself (the independent view). Abi held court and led us through key questions that set the scene around whether a Codec war was even really happening, and the key takeaways were:
- It is not a war, it is normal competition returning to the market
- HEVC and AV1 are not ‘neck and neck’, they are in different phases of development as HEVC is maturing in the market and AV1 is just out of the gate. The view I have is that it is a science project that is up to 5 years back from the current state of HEVC maturity. Similarly other new codecs are coming down the pipe including VVC, but that is only just starting today
- HEVC’s major challenge has been the licensing cost and the confused licensing situation with three patent pools and a whole bunch of non-aligned companies who state the ownership of IPR in it. There are still has some issues with that, but many operators have appreciated the recent changes by HEVC Advance (one of the three licence pools) to simplify and reduce the costs of licensing HEVC. Now that is resolved, the need for the alternatives has significantly lessened in urgency for many operators
- AV1, although royalty free, still has an unclear long term licence and almost certainly some cost implication for many as there are likely to be some IP owners who will be looking at AV1 very closely now that it is out in the open
- AV1 has significant performance challenges at this stage on the encoding side but work will continue to optimise now it is out of the gate with the bitstream having been standardised. There are also a lot of parties involved in this with the breadth of the AOM membership and key parties who are very energised to make it a success
- AV1 however is still many years away from deployment in hardware form in clients, whereas AVC is almost universal and HEVC has a significant market penetration, particular for the support of UHD and HDR
- AVC/H.264 defines an era where we have had incredible stability and focus on a single codec (although there were still others including MPEG2) but this has been almost unprecedented – the more normal situation is having multiple codecs, each with its advantages, disadvantages and different level of maturity and position in the market
- There are other codecs in the market, such as VP9 (the predecessor of AV1) and, running quietly out of the view of most, AVS2 – the HEVC equivalent Codec which has been developed in the Chinese market, and which has significant support there. In addition there are enhancements to baseline codecs such as V-Nova’s Perseus amongst others that offer features that some may see as desirable. These will be looked at by many for resolving the needs of businesses with codecs
Reviewing my own thoughts after the panel, the aim of having a single codec for every use case is definitely a fallacy – something that was thought to be possible by some, but in reality there is significant downside from a use case perspective – in effectiveness, innovation and competition. In the immediate situation today the codec of choice is still actually AVC/H.264 but for specific applications and services HEVC is significantly being brought into play to support important enhancements such as UHD and HDR. In addition both of these codecs are supplemented by the application of improvements in encoding effectiveness and efficiency such as is brought by Content Aware Encoding (also known as per-title encoding). AV1, immature that it is, has also a place in some instances and that will grow as it matures.
In the short to medium term, HEVC has the crown over AV1 but that will be re-evaluated in the 2021-2023 period and AV1 will be looked at then by many in the context of the market at that point, as well as the use cases that different codecs may be optimised for such as mobile versus fixed device usage, on demand versus live, and UHD versus HD.
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