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AV1 video codec carries clout with royalty-free status

Industry giants, including Cisco and Microsoft, have backed AOMedia's new royalty-free codec. So, what does this mean for royalty-bearing video coding standards?

The Alliance for Open Media, or AOMedia, recently released its royalty-free AV1 video codec, which delivers 4K ultrahigh-definition or higher online video, while also lowering data usage. So, what does this new video codec mean for enterprises?

AV1 marks a paradigm shift from royalty-bearing video codecs toward royalty-free video codecs. This cannot be taken lightly. Voice codecs have also shifted from royalty-bearing toward royalty-free codecs through the inception of Speex, SILK and Opus. With video codecs, this trend toward royalty-free started showing signs of success with Google's VP8 and WebM Project, which grew into VP9 and now the AV1 video codec.

With royalty-bearing codecs, users pay for the privilege to use the codec. The party paying the fees may be the chipset vendor, device manufacturer, original equipment manufacturer or software application developer. The party receiving the fees is the owner of the relevant patents or an industry group covering multiple vendors with relevant patents.

Royalty-bearing codecs have two key problems:

  1. The costs of using the codecs are usually high and act as a barrier of entry to new players. These costs could also squash use cases and business models where monetization is not tightly coupled with the use of a service, which is how many consumer services are delivered.
  2. It's not always easy to determine who needs to be paid, how much, and when and for what exactly. For example, look at the current state of High Efficiency Video Coding (HEVC), also known as the 265 video codec. Three organizations are vying for licensing of patents related to the codec. And at least 15 additional vendors, which are unaffiliated with the three organizations, have said they have essential patents in HEVC.

AV1 video codec has sizable support

Historically, all professional video codecs that were standardized and had an ecosystem around them were royalty-bearing in nature. This created a natural monopoly for the video codec patent owners and their intellectual property rights management organizations.

AOMedia looks to solve these problems with its AV1 video codec specification. As a royalty-free codec, AV1 can be used anywhere for any modern video-related use case. It also has an Open Source reference implementation that developers can adopt. Although this unoptimized implementation is not yet suitable for serious commercial use, it should improve over time.

The AV1 video codec is also backed by industry giants, including chipset vendors, browser vendors and streaming services. And, interestingly, some of the AOMedia vendors also have HEVC-related patents.

The mass of vendors that are AOMedia members creating a royalty-free video codec will be hard to ignore. From now on, the industry will most likely consider video codecs an essential technology that needs to be royalty-free in its specification.

AOMedia members include some big-name companies.

HEVC has seen minimal adoption

AV1 wasn't created in a vacuum. It was created at a time when several vendors were working on HEVC, with a goal of creating the next-generation video codec to replace H.264. With a first version of the HEVC specification published in June 2013, you'd think its adoption would be rather high by now. That's simply not the case.

The most notable HEVC adoptions in recent years were Netflix and Apple. In 2014, Netflix adopted HEVC for streaming 4K videos. By the end of 2016, Netflix adopted VP9, probably to replace HEVC. Netflix is also a member of AOMedia now working on AV1 as a future video codec.

Apple has had two iterations of HEVC. In 2014, with the launch of iPhone 6, Apple adopted HEVC for its FaceTime video service. Apple dialed back to H.264 with iPhone 7, according to the phone specifications, either because of performance or royalty issues.

In 2017, with the introduction of iOS 11, Apple went full-throttle behind HEVC, touting improved media compression in its camera application. Apple's use of HEVC could probably boost the codec's overall adoption in the industry. Interestingly, though, Apple also joined AOMedia as a founding member in 2018, adding its considerable weight to the royalty-free video codecs camp.

Can HEVC survive in an AOMedia world?

HEVC's challenges stem from the complex and ambiguous licensing associated with its patents. To use HEVC, you have to license it from MPEG LA, HEVC Advance, Velos Media, Technicolor and maybe additional companies. MPEG LA, HEVC Advance and Velos Media are organizations that manage licensing and royalties for a pool of vendors.

From now on, the industry will most likely consider video codecs an essential technology that needs to be royalty-free in its specification.

MPEG LA's licensing system is easy and straightforward. Yet, it's expensive compared to H.264, mainly because HEVC is newer, with more relevant patents belonging to a large group of vendors.

HEVC Advance started with a licensing plan that was expensive, without any cap on quantities and with royalty payments for content streaming. It later retracted its plan to collect royalty payments for content streaming, but Technicolor had already left the HEVC Advance alliance of vendors.

Velos Media is a new alliance of companies licensing essential patents for HEVC. The group's payment terms and business model are still unclear and not detailed on its website.

Using HEVC today can be a licensing minefield. There is no easy way to understand the costs associated with deploying services and applications that use HEVC.

Will enterprises embrace AV1 or HEVC?

The progress of AV1 and AOMedia has forced HEVC-related vendors and organizations to rethink their licensing terms. In part, the retraction of HEVC Advance is most likely linked to competing with a royalty-free video codec in the form of AV1.

For HEVC to succeed, fewer organizations should be involved, caps need to be placed on licensing terms, and royalty fees and restrictions need to be relaxed.     

Today, enterprises can use H.264 for most of their workloads, whether it's video recording, streaming or real-time media processing and communications. VP8 and VP9 offer interesting alternatives in specific scenarios, such as WebRTC deployments.

Because H.264 is an aging technology, the time is ripe for a migration to the next video codec. Up until recently, the competing video codecs were HEVC and VP9, but recent developments make AV1 a considerable competitor.

And because AV1 is still new, enterprises that can delay a decision on their next video codec should wait until the end of the year and then reassess their position. Enterprises that cannot delay a decision should pick either VP9 or HEVC and revisit their decision in 2019.

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