Google-led group preempts HEVC

Google-led group preempts HEVC

Technology News |
Internet giants Google and Cisco have banded together with Amazon and Netflix, two large streaming service players, along with Microsoft, Intel and Mozilla, to establish an Alliance for Open Media to develop “open, royalty-free and interoperable solutions for the next generation of video delivery,” the group said Tuesday (Sept. 1).
By eeNews Europe

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By coming up with a new video codec of its own "optimized for the Web," the Alliance for Open Media is issuing a direct challenge to High Efficiency Video Coding (HEVC), also known as H.265, developed by Moving Picture Experts Group (MPEG).

The news came as a surprise to most industry analysts EE Times talked to.

On the surface, this looks like a big new technology battle brewing between HEVC and the Alliance for Open Media. Most likely, said the analysts, there’s more to the story.

Preemptive strike
The popular suspicion among analysts is that royalties are the crux. The Alliance for Open Media is launching a preemptive strike against organizations, licensing agencies or patent pools that might scheme to charge service providers who stream content in HEVC over the Internet.

One newly established patent pool, for example, is called HEVC Advance. Separate from MPEG LA, it proposes to charge service providers for transmitting content encoded in HEVC. If this becomes a reality, it’s a big blow to companies such as Netflix and Amazon, adding a cost they weren’t counting on. Both companies are charter members of the Alliance for Open Media.

The patent pool for AVC/H.264, currently the most widely used video codec for Internet content, does not charge a royalty for free AVC-encoded content distributed over the Internet.

One analyst said that since the HEVC Advance pool hasn’t officially kicked off its licensing program (most likely they will this fall), “it’s possible” that the Alliance for Open Media could pressure HEVC Advance into backing down.

But so far, the sides aren’t talking.

New video codec for streaming video
The Alliance for Open Media is also not talking specifics on its new video codec technology. Further, as of today, the Alliance has no video codec demonstration to show, even though a couple of big consumer and broadcasting tradeshows — IFA and IBC — are under way in Europe.

However, that’s not to say the Alliance’s member companies lack for video expertise. Two weeks ago, Cisco announced its Thor video codec. Google has VP10, and Mozilla started its own Daala project.

David Bryant, Mozilla’s interim CTO, vice president of Platform Engineering, wrote Tuesday in his blog post, “Things are moving fast for royalty-free video codecs.” He added, "We started our own Daala project and formed NETVC to meet those needs, and we’ve seen explosive interest in the result. We believe that Daala, Cisco’s Thor, and Google’s VP10 combine to form an excellent basis for a truly world-class royalty-free codec."

Asked how the new group’s video codec will be different from HEVC, two spokesmen for the Alliance, Matt Frost of Google and Ian Le Grow of Microsoft, told EE Times in an email exchange: "The Alliance for Open Media is working on the next generation of internet video technology — a qualitative step beyond H. 265."

But really, what specifics couldn’t be accomplished by HEVC/H.265?

The alliance spokesmen added, "A primary goal is to achieve performance results that cannot be achieved with H. 265, and to do so more quickly than has historically been accomplished working through traditional standards bodies."

They added, "All members of the Alliance have committed to licensing their IP on a royalty-free basis for the resulting technology. That means that we are establishing licensing terms at the beginning of the development process, which helps provide certainty to future users of the technology."

No infringement?
As Merrick Kingston, IHS’ principal analyst, Connected Home, told us, the Alliance for Open Media appears to take a page out of Google’s playbook. "Much as Google has positioned its VP9 codec as an open-source, royalty-free alternative to HEVC, the Alliance for Open Media’s ambition appears to be to achieve much the same."

One could say that the market already has an alternative in Google-designed VPx family of codecs. Most vendors and service providers, however, hesitate to put their long-term compression strategy in the hands of a single firm – Google, explained Kingston. "The Alliance for Open Media, ostensibly, wishes to provide the market with a compression solution that not only is it as economically attractive as VPx, but that represents a more transparent coalition of technology contributors."


 

The goal to offer the market an economical compression alternative is admirable. But some analysts question the new group’s readiness to develop a new video codec without infringing essential patents held by the developers of previous video codecs under MPEG.

Richard Doherty, research director of Envisioneering Group, called the announcement by the Alliance for Open Media "a BIG deal."  However, he quickly added, "It would be very hard to get around the core patents of H.265. Not impossible, but it would be a game-changer to do it."

Another analyst, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that the "royalty free" promise would suggest a fundamentally different compression method because almost all non-MPEG iterations have used underlying IP from companies/universities that contributed to the MPEG video standards.

The hard reality is that past promises of "royalty free" codecs never worked. "Back when Microsoft took its WMV9 codec and put it out as a SMPTE standard and promised it would be royalty free, Microsoft ended up having to form a licensing pool with MPEG LA (still in operation today), because some of the technology was deemed to be infringing on MPEG-4 AVC patents," the analyst explained. "It was the same kind of deal with Google’s VP8.  Google ended up cutting a deal with MPEG LA to license AVC presumably to get legal clearance to offer a royalty free VP8."

Among Alliance members, Microsoft and Intel have HEVC patents but haven’t joined either of the two HEVC patent pools.

IHS’ Kingston pointed out that the set of licensors who comprise MPEG-LA’s HEVC pool, and the set of Alliance for Open Media founders, are totally mutually exclusive.

Kingston said, "If none of the HEVC licensors back the Alliance for Open Media, it potentially leaves any standard that the new group develops open to claims of infringement." In short, "This would throw a real spanner in the works for a group whose foundational aim is to offer the market an economical compression alternative."

Beyond IP issues
Beyond legal uncertainties surrounding the Alliance’s emerging video codec, a few more market related issues will come into play that could determine the group’s future.

One is content. Do content owners want to deal with yet another standard? Doherty noted that none of the companies in the Alliance for Open Media are content owners, with the exception of Microsoft Games and Netflix original content. He wonders if the right hand knew what the left hand was doing when they joined the Alliance.

Further, Kingston wondered if service providers themselves are interested in a future standard. He said, "The market already supports 4 standards, and largely across the board: H.264, HEVC, VP8, and VP9."

Last but not least, where is the silicon supporting the new video codec, asked Doherty. Similarly, Kingston wonders whether portable-device SoC vendors will jump on [the Alliance for Open Media] bandwagon, and support any future standard at the hardware level. Kingston said, "Without a doubt, HEVC is still in its early days… but at least at the hardware level, the ecosystem is virtually complete."

In short, the biggest challenge that’s ahead of the Alliance for Open Media is "time."

Even though the group announced that they are working on a standard, members don’t appear to have anything to show. Analysts suspect that Google might be the farthest along, but even Google says VP10 won’t be ready until the end of 2016.

 

About the author:

Junko Yoshida, Chief International Correspondent, EE Times

 

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