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Netflix and YouTube streaming video is about to get a lot faster

AV1 compression technology from companies like Google, Microsoft, Amazon and Netflix is here. And it's blowing up the video industry's patent rules, too.

AOMedia AV1 logo
AV1 video compression technology will make your streaming video a whole lot faster.
Alliance for Open Media

Tech's biggest companies -- including Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook, Cisco and Netflix -- have finished the first version of video compression technology called AV1, and now they're ready to use it to speed up your streaming video.

AV1 can match the quality of the prevailing video compression technologies, HEVC and VP9, using 30 percent to 40 percent less network capacity, said Gabe Frost, director of the Alliance for Open Media, which developed the technology. Although some technologies have a hard time escaping the labs, AV1 isn't one of them: It'll soon deliver video from YouTube, Amazon Prime, Netflix and Facebook as the technology spreads to laptops and phones.

Compression is key to streaming video. With good compression, you can avoid blocky or blurry artifacts, shorten waiting times for video to start, pare back your network usage and sometimes upgrade to higher-resolution video, like 4K, without having to upgrade your broadband connection.

But AV1 could have another big effect, too: leaving behind a video patent system that arguably has held back the speed boosts that HEVC could have delivered. Patent royalty requirements have limited the spread of HEVC, but AV1 is open-source software and costs nothing to use.

"I think free always wins," said Jon Peddie, analyst at Jon Peddie Research.

AV1 could be used in any sort of video connection your computer or smartphone can make -- streaming movies, video chat, screen sharing and video game streaming. It could also help usher in newer technologies, like high-resolution 4K video and virtual reality headsets that need high resolution and minimal delays decoding video sent over a network.

Spinning the flywheel

The alliance announced Wednesday that it's finished the AV1 specification, which describes in detail how a web browser, phone, TV or other device turns the technology's "bitstream" into a video that can be shown on a screen. Support in browsers and widely used software tools like ffmpeg should arrive soon -- indeed, AV1 already is in Mozilla's Firefox browser in test form.

AV1 support begins with browsers now and will reach mobile phones in 2020.

Alliance for Open Media

"You'll see it major browsers in 2018 and 2019," said Frost, who also is a principal engineering manager at Microsoft. "We're spinning this flywheel really quickly."

AV1 hardware support comes next. Twice a year, AV1 team members make two-week trips to China, Korea and Japan to work with device makers, and alliance members include Intel, Nvidia, AMD and Arm -- the latter an important supplier of smartphone processor technology. Processors should support AV1 in 2020, which will mean your phone can decode the video faster and be used to capture video in AV1 format, too.

It isn't arriving as quickly as initially hoped, though. Mozilla, Google, Microsoft, Cisco, Amazon and other allies formed the Alliance for Open Media in 2015 and hoped to deliver its first product in 2016 or 2017 by combining video compression projects from Google, Cisco and Mozilla. The alliance has grown more powerful compared to its initial incarnation. Notably, AOMedia attracted Apple and Facebook as members.

AV1 is an easy replacement for Google's VP9, given that Google controls Chrome, the dominant web browser, and video giant YouTube. Google and Netflix also require electronics makers shipping apps for their services to support specific compression technology, Frost said. That's a powerful lever for advancing support.

"The prospects are good because we have name-brand services that are lined up," said Matt Frost, head of media strategy and partnerships for Google's Chrome team and a member of AOMedia. (He's not related to AOMedia Director Gabe Frost.)

HEVC investments 'up in smoke'

But competing against HEVC will be a fiercer challenge.

HEVC emerged five years ago from a decades-old, largely successful collaboration called MPEG, the Motion Pictures Expert Group. You may not have heard of it, but if you watched any video on your phone, you probably used HEVC's predecessor, H.264. If you downloaded any music or podcasts, you likely have used the group's MP3 audio compression technology.

Lots of tech powers are committed to use AV1 video: Amazon Prime and Amazon's Twitch video streaming site, Google's YouTube, Facebook, and Microsoft's Skype and Xbox. Apple is a founding member of the AOMedia, but it alone is missing from the list of top web browsers planning support.

Alliance for Open Media

HEVC's H.264 was a huge success, arriving just as smartphones and video streaming services were taking off. HEVC, though, has stumbled as patent holders failed to provide the relatively simple licensing guidelines that H.264 used.

For years, companies invested lots of money in MPEG standards and reaped licensing rewards. No more, said Leonardo Chiariglione, who has run MPEG for 30 years, in a January blog post that called HEVC "unusable."

"At long last everybody realizes that the old MPEG business model is now broke," and the hundreds of millions of dollars invested in HEVC "will go up in smoke," he wrote. AOMedia's royalty-free model will spread, Chiariglione predicted, and video compression progress will slow with no incentive for companies to invest.

That's an outdated view of video investment, countered AOMedia's Frost.

"I think that's a very narrow view that reflects the history, the past, of how monetization happened with these core technologies," he said.

Today profits -- and thus investments -- come from higher-level services. Think ads on YouTube and Facebook or subscription payments for Netflix, Xbox Live and Amazon Prime.

How we got here

Three different groups, called patent pools, offer licenses to HEVC patents held by their members. But many significant players aren't in any pool, and one of them, Velos Media, doesn't publish royalty rates and does reserve the right to charge for use of HEVC by streaming video companies. It all adds up to uncertainty and a lot of work for lawyers and accountants at chipmakers or software companies thinking of supporting HEVC.

Licensing patents for HEVC video isn't simple. Three patent pools and several unaffiliated companies seek royalty payments.

Licensing patents for HEVC video isn't simple. Three patent pools and several unaffiliated companies seek royalty payments. Jonatan Samuelsson of Divideon, maker of the xvc video compression technology, compiled this partial list.

Jonatan Samuelsson/Divideon

"HEVC has been available for several years, but the multiple patent pools have complicated its deployment," said Michelle Abraham, an analyst at S&P Global Market Intelligence. Aside from some use for 4K video, "it has not been widely adopted for streaming."

The three pools -- MPEG LA, HEVC Advance and Velos Media -- each expressed optimism. "HEVC adoption is accelerating," said Pete Moller, chief executive of HEVC Advance, which just eliminated any fees for streaming media with HEVC.

He pointed to HEVC support in newer Intel processors, the Qualcomm chips that power many premium and midtier phones, and TV broadcasting technology. The biggest HEVC splash came from Apple, which championed HEVC in its iPhones and iOS software in 2017.

Some also cast doubts on whether AV1 truly doesn't infringe patents.

"We believe that it would be unwise for people to assume that AV1 will be 'royalty free,'" Velos said in a statement. "We know that VP9 incorporates patented technologies of patent holders that are not part of AOMedia, including some of the patents being licensed by Velos Media for HEVC."

The tech industry's biggest companies are all founding members of the Alliance for Open Media.

The tech industry's biggest companies are all founding members of the Alliance for Open Media.

Alliance for Open Media

Leaning in

AOMedia is taking the patent issue head-on, a contrast to how Google handled the issue in years past as it promoted VP8 and VP9.

"We're leaning into it," Frost said.

For one thing, it's got the collective patent clout of a lot of members that contribute their patents to the AV1 technology. "We wanted to have a critical mass of intellectual property from our member companies," Frost said.

For another, rights to use AV1 evaporate for any company that sues over AV1 patent infringement. The companies explicitly designed AV1 to avoid non-member patents. And to deter opportunistic lawsuits, AOMedia members are protected by a legal defense fund.

It's not yet clear how well AV1 will fare. But VP9 was useful in streaming media, and AV1 should do at least as well while HEVC isn't the slam dunk its predecessor was. There's no doubt AV1 has an A-list of allies, though.

"Its prospects are extraordinarily good," Google's Frost said.

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