In the last decade, the tech industry has rallied around one codec for streaming video files over the internet: MPEG’s AVC/H.264. Now the market is moving toward a new generation of video codecs that offer 30% to 70% better compression than H.264. Is your team ready to transition?
Adopting the new generation compression is important today because shrinking video files means you can send higher-quality video over the same network infrastructure, for a richer, more compelling user experience and reduce delivery costs for popular content.
Video makes up roughly 70% of all internet traffic today. That number is expected to rise to 82% in 2021, according to Cisco research. That powerful market dynamic is driving adoption of new technologies to encode and decode video so it can travel more efficiently over the web. But so far, there is no clear winner in the high-efficiency codec space.
To switch or not to switch
Here are some of the factors at play.
At first look, the logical approach for companies that support streaming video with H.264 today is to stay the course and make the move to the next-generation MPEG video codec, HEVC/H.265. But HEVC/H.265 licensing terms are still not fully transparent and the next generation codec has a shrinking device support. For many businesses, that is a roadblock to adoption.
In terms of compression, H.265 is a significant improvement over H.264 — roughly 50% more efficient. That puts it on par with Google’s VP9 codec, which does not charge licensing fees, but also does not offer full device reach. Then there’s a third player, AV1, which is an open source codec from AOMedia. Continuing the initial work on VP10, AV1 boasts 70% better compression than H.264. That’s caught a lot of people’s attention, even though AV1 is still a work in progress.
Managing the codec choices
Today, browser and device makers are fragmented in their support for these new codecs. Apple’s Safari browser supports HEVC/H.265, but not VP9. Google and Firefox are behind VP9 and AV1, and steering clear of HEVC/H.265. So how can savvy businesses get the benefits of more efficient compression and still reach users on all platforms?
Most companies will need to take a more nuanced and pragmatic approach to adopting and supporting new media codecs. Right now we have three high efficiency video codecs to choose from, with more on the way for compressing ultra high-definition video and virtual reality media.
The way forward is a hybrid multi-codec approach. Companies will need to continue supporting H.264 to ensure interoperability with every device. At the same time, there’s an opportunity to build out support for HEVC, VP9 and AV1 that deliver higher quality video, for a differentiated service offering.
Implementing this approach requires a clear set of criteria around business goals. For instance:
- Who is the target audience?
- What kind of content are you optimizing for? Is it scheduled, like a sports event? Or is it unexpected, like breaking news?
- How high is expected demand?
- What platforms are watchers most likely to connect on?
- How important is it that this content is high-quality?
- How important are download times? What are the acceptable bandwidth costs?
- How many platforms do you need to support? Do they include newer web-enabled devices like set-top boxes and web TVs?
These questions are important, when it comes to carefully evaluating how a new codec can enhance your business opportunities — and when it’s not worth the overhead.
When to invest in better compression
Encoding video content in more than one codec is costly. You’re investing CPU cycles in the encoding work itself, including the costs of power, cooling, and rack space. You’re also paying to store two or more versions of the same file in your data center.
On the plus side, once you encode in a high-efficiency format, you’ve got a smaller file to store, that can stream more quickly to a lot of people and incur lower bandwidth costs. So if demand for that particular asset is high enough, it’s possible to recoup your encoding costs — and deliver a higher quality product than the competition. If a video goes viral, and you can reach the right platforms or user groups with higher quality video, this investment can pay off handsomely.
Building a smart encoding model can help business find an optimal solution for each use case. For instance, adopting VP9 and HEVC would enable you to deliver advanced compression to roughly 83% of the browser users in the US. The remaining 17% would fall back to H.264 and you would still have complete coverage of every browser.
* Only available in Safari for iOS 11 and macOS High Sierra.
** Only available in Edge 14.14291.
Here are some sample use cases.
- An online newspaper has a breaking story that it expects to have broad appeal. The publisher encodes its exclusive footage in HEVC/H.265 and VP9 in addition to H.264, to offsetting the double hit on encoding costs with lower bandwidth fees, and delivering crisp, clear visuals to mobile phones and laptops.
- A video-on-demand company is the first to get the rights to stream a blockbuster movie in high definition (HD). It anticipates heavy demand in its target market, Asia, where most viewers have web-enabled HD TVs. It encodes the file in H.264, HEVC/H.265 and VP9, deliver crisp, clear visuals on the big screens.
- A large social media platform has some fast-trending videos and the rest of the footage that only gets played a few dozen times. The video engineers encode the top 20% of the files into HEVC/H.265 and VP9, to improve quality and speed download times for millions of trending content views, and the rest in the good-enough catch-all H.264.
Components of a smart encoding model
To successfully implement a smart encoding model, companies need tools and information to help them make key decisions, often on the fly. These include:
- An analytics platform that can show user attributes, such as type of device and connection
- Fast encoding tool to stay ahead of user demands
- Video player that supports a range of codecs
These components can help guide your company through the steps of new decision-making processes.
Gather information. Analytics can help companies determine which video assets to re-encode in a high-efficiency codec — especially helpful for mobile devices, web TVs, and set-top boxes. Once you have a clear picture of your audiences, platforms, and demographics, it’s possible to optimize those experiences while containing costs.
Capture opportunities. Getting higher quality video to the right audience and platforms at the right time is a new market imperative. Popular content travels quickly; make sure your encoding tool can keep up. Decades ago, it took hours to encode a 30-minute video. Now, the fastest encoding tools work at speeds of 100:1, meaning, a 100-minute video can be encoded in one minute. Faster-than-real-time speeds means your business can respond quickly to viewers interests in a certain media asset — and stay flexible if you want to re-encode for additional platforms on the fly.
Reach every user. Having your content supported all along the streaming pipeline, from encoding media files to play out in a browser. You can simplify this process by standardizing on a video player that supports the full range of codec options available today and is able to identify the user’s device and browser to serve the appropriate content.
Today’s technologies are getting more complex — and more powerful. If you’re considering what high-quality video experiences can bring to your user base, it’s a good time to explore the options. As current demand shows, video has a particularly bright future on the web. What’s next? Equally steep growth curves for emerging technologies like virtual, augmented and mixed reality, which promise to bring even more compelling educational and entertainment experiences to the web, for distribution across platforms, cultures and continents.
At Bitmovin, we solve complex video problems, so your team can focus on building your business. As a leading provider of video infrastructure for online media companies around the world, the Bitmovin API offers the support to scale quickly and know it will work.
Are you ready for a multi-codec world?