Competing Codecs Waging War for Future of Video Delivery

GENEVA, SWITZERLAND—The ITU-T Video Coding Experts Group enjoys current market dominance with H.264, while Google has ubiquity of web reach with Android and Chrome and is offering up VP9 for free.

In the battle for video codec supremacy between H.265 and VP9, the winner will be determined in the next few years by either market dominance/acceptance due to marketing resources and/or the challenge of replacing legacy technology across an entire ecosystem. That’s according to a recent blog post by Richard Wingard, CEO and co-founder of Euclidiq, a Concord, Mass.-based provider of compression technology for the delivery of video over IP networks.

Wingard writes that the two competing video codec technologies are both vying to become the future de facto standard video compression format. H.265 is the successor to H.264, which is the current standard owned by the ITU-T Video Coding Experts Group for encoding and decoding video and audio data. VP9 is the next generation of Google’s VP8 codec, an open source technology that offers the important advantage of being offered for free, without any licensing costs.

“Each of these technologies has certain advantages – both technical and from a business perspective,” he says. “And both technologies are predicted to come out ahead, depending on which industry experts you read. While H.264 has far and away the largest market share today, some analysts such as Micah Van Hove have suggested that Google’s VP9 is poised to win the next round of the codec wars, at least for 4K streaming.”

H.265 is the successor to today’s dominant codec, H.264. Both H.264 and H.265 are owned by the IU-T Video Coding Experts Group, a consortium of companies that collectively charge licensing royalties on every use of their video codec. H.264 is used to deliver the vast majority of Internet video and is the standard for delivering HD quality broadcast video. The ubiquity of H.264 in all the equipment used to produce and deliver video (video cameras, video compression software, digital media players, etc.) would seem to give it a big edge over any competing technology simply because it’s easier for manufacturers to upgrade a known and used technology to the next level, rather than switch over to something new.

VP9 is the next evolutionary step up from VP8, Google’s video compression technology. Google originally bought On2, a video compression company, and their VP6/VP8 technology back in 2009. Wingard writes that at the time, the company wanted a video compression technology that would reduce the bandwidth (and server burden) for all the YouTube videos they have to store and stream.

“Google has vast reach and resources, and their business model is not to make money on selling technology but on selling services that use their technology.”

He says to consider Android as an example. “Since making Android an open source operating system, Google has succeeded in making it the largest installed base of any mobile OS. And Google gets a commission on everything sold through the Android store. After acquiring On2 in 2009 for $125 million, Google promptly made the technology they just bought free for anyone to use. While the free VP8 has not proliferated like the costlier H.264, the open source encoding model could be a strong motivator in the future. Consider that Google has already integrated support of VP9 into YouTube and Google Chrome, now the #1 web browser by market share.”

This, Wingard says, the ITU-T Video Coding Experts Group enjoys the current market dominance with H.264, while Google has ubiquity of web reach with Android and Chrome and is offering up VP9 for free. What other factors should be considered?

Regarding compression performance, Wingard writes that the objective of a codec is to deliver the highest quality of video possible at the lowest bitrate while requiring as little processing time as possible. He cites one analysis and performance comparison of the two codecs authored jointly by video technologists at Universities in Germany and Israel in December, 2013.

“Their work found that, in comparing encoded videos of approximately the same quality, H.265 achieved 43 percent lower bitrates than VP9 and 39 percent lower bitrates than H.264, while H.264 produced 6 percent lower bitrates than VP9. However H.265 took more than seven times as long to encode as VP9 and more than 13 times as long as H.264. So in this comparison, VP9 performed significantly worse than H.265, though its encoding time was faster.

“Google in its own performance comparison claims that VP9 achieves over 50 percent lower bitrates for the same quality when compared to H.264, putting VP9 on the same order of compression performance (when measured as gain over H.264) as H.265. Obviously, there is a disconnect between the results of these two studies, which calls into question the fairness of the respective testing methodologies (test videos, encoder settings, etc.). Given that both H.265 and VP9 continue to evolve, it is fair to say that the jury is still out on which produces superior compression performance, until a greater number of definitive studies are published.”

Looking ahead to the future, Wingard suggests “Google has an apparent advantage in Internet streaming in that its leading position in the web browser market (with Google Chrome) will allow it to seamlessly push automatic updates for VP9 to the market. H.265 may have to work harder to gain adoption, but it is being supported and promoted by the MPEG committee, of which several major technology companies are members.”

He says many of these technology companies are currently spending significant R&D dollars to develop H.265.

“On the other hand, the huge market share of H.264 in existing chipsets and hardware will make it very tough to dislodge the incumbent from the device market. The next few years are going to be very interesting as this battle of standards plays out in the marketplace.”

Euclidiq has published a white paper on its website highlighting the benefits of higher H.264 encoding efficiency for HD and 4K challenges.