VLC steps into next-gen video wars with VP9, HEVC support

With VLC 2.1.1, VideoLAN continues to sidestep the software patent licensing minefield of video compression. Meanwhile, open-source allies put muscle behind the new Daala codec.

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VideoLAN's VLC media player software has added experimental support for two video compression formats, HEVC and VP9, that are at the center of a technologically and legally complicated fight for the future of online video.

VLC 2.1.1, free and open-source software released Thursday, continues with the program's broad support philosophy by supporting many compression formats. That neutrality, though, is the exception rather than the rule when it comes to next-generation video formats.

The video competition is chiefly between Google's open-source VP9 codec and HEVC , which has patent royalty burdens but which comes from a standards process with a lot of industry clout.

A codec, short for coder-decoder, is technology that compresses and decompresses audio and video for more efficient storage and transmission. As entertainment becomes digital and moves to the Net, codecs have become the focus of a struggle between groups that have very different feelings about proprietary technology.

Google released VP9 earlier this year, including freely usable open-source software support and no patent licensing requirements, hoping it will catch on as a next-generation video format that liberates Web video from patent royalty payments. HEVC, though patent-encumbered, comes from the powerful MPEG standards group that represents many companies' video technology experts.

HEVC, short for High Efficiency Video Coding and also called H.265, is the sequel to AVC/H.264. That earlier standard is widely used in everything from optical discs to cameras to streaming video. The organization that offers a license for the patents, MPEG LA, hasn't yet detailed terms for licensing HEVC patents on behalf of 36 patent holders, but the organization should do so soon.

VideoLAN, a non-profit organization based in France that releases VLC as open-source software, has sidestepped the licensing issue entirely with H.264 in the past, and now with HEVC, too.

"European and French law does not consider 'software-only' patents as valid," said Jean-Baptiste Kempf, president of the VideoLAN Organization, told CNET. "As we are doing software only, not hardware, and we don't make money, we don't license those."

For its HEVC codec, VideoLAN has drawn upon another open-source effort called OpenHEVC, Kempf said.

HEVC and VP9 are still new to the technology world, specifications that are not yet widely used or supported. Soon, though, they could face another rival called Daala, whose development is sponsored by Firefox developer Mozilla and by Xiph.org, an organization that's created freely usable codecs for years.

Google and Mozilla banded together to back Google's VP8 for Web video, but the alliance was frayed when Google decided not to keep a promise to remove H.264 support from its Chrome browser. Mozilla bowed to the market reality and added support for H.264 when an operating system offered it. And in October, Mozilla allied with Cisco to use an open-source version of H.264 that Cisco is underwriting.

"We lost, and we're admitting defeat. Cisco is providing a path for orderly retreat that leaves supporters of an open Web in a strong enough position to face the next battle, so we're taking it," said Monty Montgomery, a codec developer at Xiph.org, in a blog post.

He has high hopes for Daala, though. Specifically, he hopes it will be technologically superior to rival codecs. "Daala is a novel approach to codec design. It aims not to be competitive, but to win outright," Montgomery said.

Strong words, to be sure, but good technology isn't the sole determinant for success. It takes a lot of work to spread codec support to the countless Web sites, mobile phone processors, operating systems in the tech world today. H.264 has set a high bar for ubiquity.

 

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