Google's Web-video ambitions bump into hard reality

The company's technical prowess and free VP9 licensing haven't been enough to dent the fortunes of rival compression format HEVC. But Google's already moving on to VP10.

Stephen Shankland Former Principal Writer
Stephen Shankland worked at CNET from 1998 to 2024 and wrote about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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Stephen Shankland
8 min read

Renganathan Ramamoorthy, the Chrome team product manager who oversees VP9 work, speaks at Google headquarters..
Renganathan Ramamoorthy, the Chrome team product manager who oversees VP9 work, says VP9 hardware support will be a given, eventually. Stephen Shankland/CNET

Google's VPx line of compression technology was supposed to liberate video on the Web from financial and legal shackles. So far, though, the company hasn't had much success getting it to catch on anywhere beyond YouTube.

When Google acquired On2 for $123 million in 2010, it had high hopes for the company's video compression technology. VP8 and its successors would make it as easy for Web site developers to use videos as it is to use photos, and Google would get the more powerful and engaging Web it wants. Key to this video liberation plan is that VPx is free to use, with open-source software, free hardware designs for chipmakers, and none of the patent royalty-payment requirements of the technology's chief rivals, H.264 and its successor, HEVC.

Google is moving fast with its technology. It released VP8 in 2010 and VP9 in 2013. A release of VP10 is likely in early 2015. But when the world's video professionals gathered this week at the IBC conference in Amsterdam, it was H.264's successor, HEVC, that drew more attention from companies like Allegro DTV, Ateme and Arris Group whose job it is to get video from broadcaster to audience.

"Everybody is talking HEVC. VP9 doesn't even come up," said Dan Rayburn, a principal analyst at Frost & Sullivan. "The industry has already selected HEVC."

VPx's limited success shows that despite its technological depth and financial resources, Google has its limits. The company is able to influence computing industry standards through its control of both services that supply content and the Chrome and Android software used to reach those services. The video realm, though, is much broader than Google's Net-centric business, reaching out to cameras, processors, mobile phones, movies and TVs.

Limited success doesn't mean doomed, though. Google can play a long game, and the company remains committed to improving VPx and bringing it to the Web, if not necessarily to the entire video industry.

"We have seen the benefits it has brought YouTube and promises for other video use cases like real-time communication," said Renganathan Ramamoorthy, the Chrome team product manager overseeing VPx. "We believe these benefits are material and the Web should share these benefits."

There's more to come, too: VP10 development has begun, and Google aims to release new versions of its codec every year and a half.

"Our goal is to get codec development to Web speed," he said.

Codec competition

HEVC -- short for High Efficiency Video Coding and also called H.265 -- is developed by a consortium of companies called the Moving Picture Experts Group (MPEG). They've worked together for years to develop video compression technology named codecs due to their jobs to encode and decode video. Codecs like H.264 and VP9 are crucial to make video practical by squeezing the vast amount of video data so it can fit onto limited-speed Internet connections and limited-capacity optical discs. Without recent years' progress in codecs, video wouldn't be expanding to streaming devices, tablets, and mobile phones.

VP9 and HEVC in principle could make today's video more efficient, but the bigger motivation is to enable higher-resolution 4K video, aka Ultra HD or UHD. Today's mainstream high-definition 1080p video has a resolution of 1,920x1,080, but 4K video has a resolution of 3,840x2,160 or somewhat more. Because that quadruples the number of pixels, a better codec is essential so videos can fit on optical discs or broadband Internet connections.

The basic job of a codec is to throw away data in such a way that people don't notice, for example by discarding colors that human eyes don't detect as sensitively. To accomplish this, VP9 and HEVC rely on more sophisticated encoding algorithms that do a better job analyzing the frame-to-frame differences. That means it takes more processing power to create the videos in the first place without incurring so much of a battery-draining penalty on phones, TVs, and PCs when the video is decoded at display time.

Codecs, perhaps surprisingly, have been at the center of something of a religious war in the technology realm. The VPx family has attracted interest from those unhappy with the intellectual-property burdens that are spreading across the tech marketplace -- such as Nokia's patent-infringement threats involving VP8. But the H.264 lineage has lots of fans among those who appreciate its utility and broad support.

YouTube's VP9 success

Google sees VP9 has a big improvement over both VP8 and H.264, which is why YouTube started using it to deliver video in December, Ramamoorthy said.

"When we think about the YouTube experience for customer, it has to start immediately and get to HD as quickly as possible," Ramamoorthy said. "These are the reasons we went to a higher-quality codec. It starts 15 percent faster than H.264. It moves to HD 15 percent faster." And indicating that it really can make better use of existing network capacity, he said, "we send more than 25 percent more HD playbacks than before using H.264."

VP9 works in the Chrome, Firefox and Opera browsers, but it's still in testing for Android. The latest version of the mobile operating system, 4.4 aka KitKat, can decode VP9 video -- 1080p for a Google Nexus 5 phone and 720p video for the older Nexus 4.

"We are now testing across different profiles -- the power impact, the streaming experience, do users like it better?" Ramamoorthy said.

Mobile phones and tablets are a key domain for video consumption. As a result, one of Google's top priorities is building in battery-efficient decoding abilities into processors.

"We are trying to get the hardware adoption. We're working with chipset makers to get the decoder in. The licensing is free as well as the decoding technology," Ramamoorthy said, and Google supplies actual designs that hardware makers can use at no charge. Ramamoorthy believes VP9 hardware support will be a given, eventually. "It's not a question of if. It's a question of when."

Mobile phone support for recording VP9 is a tougher sell because the codec must work harder to encode the video than to decode it. There, too, though, "we want VP9 to be a contender," he said. And that's the way to encourage broader adoption in yet more video recording equipment.

"If a mobile phone starts to shoot good VP9 video, I think that would be a better thing for [videocamera maker] GoPro than us telling GoPro, 'Please use this,'" Ramamoorthy said.

Meanwhile, in the rest of the world

Unfortunately for Google, though, the response so far to VP9 has been more "meh" than "wow."

Take Encoding.com for example. More than 2,000 customers, including AOL, Discovery, MTV, ESPN, and Red Bull, use it to transcode video so it can be sent to a multitude of different devices. Encoding.com doesn't support VP9, said founder and Chief Executive Greggory Heil.

"Overall we have had very low customer demand for VP9," he said. "Most of our research concludes that VP9 is far less mature than HEVC and offers inferior compression rates." And, he added, "unless IE, Safari, Android, and iOS offer some support, I don't see how it can get off the ground in any substantive way."

The next generation of Blu-ray discs for 4K video also will use HEVC.

"It's a more comprehensive package of tools that interfaces better into the [Blu-ray] format," said Ron Martin, vice president of Panasonic's Hollywood Laboratory and a member of the Blu-ray Disc Association's task force for next-generation Blu-ray development. "It's a more broadly adopted standard that interfaces into other elements of player design, particularly the security features," and development at MPEG means "known turf and objectives."

TP Vision, which sells the Philips line of TVs, plans to offer the upcoming Philips UHD880 media-streamer so people can watch HEVC-coded streaming video on their TVs. It won't support VP9 because HEVC has the market dominance, the company said.

Another company that will need convincing is Limelight Networks, a powerful content-distribution network (CDN) company whose clients pay to make sure information on the Net promptly gets to browsers, phones, and other devices. CDNs typically put servers and storage systems around the planet nearer to customers and choose carefully what sorts of data file formats they support.

"We are quite bullish on HEVC/H.265 and have some very interesting work going on in our labs around that codec as an output format," said David Morel, Limelight's senior director of product management. The incentive for the work is to support the transition to 4K video, he added. The company is evaluating VP9, too, which along with H.265 is "potentially interesting," but so far there isn't customer demand for support, he said.

Chipmakers work more slowly, since they have to wait until a specification is done before finishing hardware designs and beginning the laborious process of moving to manufacturing in high volume. There, there's a bit more VP9 support if not excitement.

Qualcomm and Nvidia today support VP8 but wouldn't comment on plans to support VP9. MediaTek, though, has made the jump.

"The MT6595 supports both the VP8 and VP9," the company said of its new eight-core mobile chip. "We are also working with Google to develop the newest codec standards."

VP10 improvements

If Google's VPx improves faster than HEVC and whatever follows, that would undoubtedly help its prospects. That's one of the hopes for VP10, Ramamoorthy said.

"Higher quality per bit" is always a priority, he said, meaning that Google wants to make even better use of available network capacity.

Another priority is simplicity. Google wants to make the codec easier to use without tradeoffs and optimization hassles. Today, those wanting to stream video have to worry too much about whether it's going to mobile devices or PCs or whether it's headed for fast or slow networks. "These are all complexities because of legacy [technology]," he said.

He wouldn't comment on VP10 arrival times, but said Google is working hard to speed up development. The gap between VP8 and VP9 was 24 months, but he hopes Google can get iteration cycles down to 18 months.

That can be tough given that Google also wants more parties involved in codec development.

"We want to get more industry participation with the next effort. We want to find how to get that without sacrificing the speed of VP9," Ramamoorthy said. He showed little enthusiasm for the more formal standardization process but appreciates how it offers a chance for multiple parties to define technology that's useful for all of them. "If that can be achieved without the current cons of the standardization process, we are definitely interested in that," he said.

If Google can make its 18-month goal, that would mean VP10 would arrive about the end of this year, with another 18 months or so for that version of the codec to arrive in chips. Google expects the first VP9-equipped mobile devices to appear in 2015.

But Google's got a lot of work to do to convince skeptics unimpressed with its codecs so far. The middling success of VP9 affects VP10's prospects.

"We have yet to look at VP10," Encoding.com's Heil said, "and will probably not do so unless VP9 shows some more traction."