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Apple strengthens royalty-free video codecs with support for AOMedia

Apple very quietly slipped its membership application to royalty-free video compression group the Alliance for Open Media (AOMedia) at the turn of the year. This is simply a practical step. It will no doubt take about five years for all devices to support AV1, for its performance claims to be borne out and for the royalty free element to be guaranteed. That means that for Apple, a company that likes to take control of all its key architectures, it is time to develop some influence in the enemy camp.

It is only from inside this camp that Apple can assert its own patents in compression, but being so late into this game, we would suggest that Apple’s claim to own any patents at all in this area is moot and only its device influence gives it real sway.

Eventually AOMedia may well sweep HEVC aside and at that point Apple will want to have all of its devices accommodate the new codec at the chip level, so it can be supported with a mere software download.

Having only announced support for the HEVC codec last year in iOS 11 devices, as well as being the largest member of HEVC licensing group MPEG-LA, Apple seemed to have drawn out clear battle lines – separating Apple, Ericsson, Sony and Technicolor in the HEVC camp, from the streaming majors of Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Netflix, Facebook and Mozilla in the AOMedia camp. Now, Apple’s arrival on the AOMedia member list could mean agreeing not to assert patents against users of AOMedia’s AV1 once it arrives.

Apple and Samsung, who are delivering the largest number of devices which support codecs, made them key opponents to AOMedia, along with Korean and Japanese operators and their suppliers, and significantly, Apple’s decision to bat for both teams will eventually drag Samsung down the same path.

The argument for AOMedia is persuasive – but its existence has not stopped other codec players, notably V-Nova, which is a licensing play, from proceeding against HEVC and AV1 and making a success of it. We believe this is down to two key issues – the performance improvement over HEVC, currently cited as 30% improvement, is not widely accepted on sufficient number of video instances nor are their implementations on enough devices.

But the other issue is whether or not all the ideas within AV1 can actually be claimed to be royalty free. VP9, the Google codec which came out of its acquisition of On2 Technologies which owed much of its evolution from MPEG2 and H.264 ideas. Google itself had to pay a license for VP9, and now has to wheedle out all of the suspect code and ideas from AV1, before it releases it to the awaiting world – hence the year long delay.

AOMedia will not at present indemnify any of its software users against legal actions, and failing to completely remove any algorithms which were invented elsewhere, it could head into legal headwinds, and potential disaster. Anyone who remembers how much effort the Linux community had to go through to prevent multiple assertions that its code was written elsewhere, will know that a line by line sourcing of every idea in the codec will be needed in legal documentation and still there will be legal actions.

It is not often that Apple is seen making moves that promote an open ecosystem, preferring to live in a walled garden from which it can better monetize its adoring fan base. So, Apple’s recognition of AV1 is a major statement that video is a top priority for the company in 2018 and beyond – at a time when rumors of a Netflix takeover are doing the rounds (although we have said this, to us, seems unlikely).

Even without Apple’s influence, the emergence of a royalty-free codec will be disruptive, shifting power over video from traditional CE businesses and studios to internet majors and chip makers.

The two rival codecs, HEVC and VP9, have produced very similar performance results from tests in terms of bandwidth savings, however, Mozilla reported back in November that AV1 slashed file sizes by between 25% and 35% compared to HEVC and VP9. At this rate, UHD video will consume the same amount of bandwidth in a couple of years as HD video does today.

The rise of AOMedia has been spearheaded by this royalty-free, open source approach, and its membership terms are the only guarantee that the fledgling AV1 codec will remain open and without royalty payments. Meanwhile, Technicolor and others who assert that they own a large chunk of HEVC patents, coupled with the fragmented HEVC licensing ecosystem spread across three separate bodies, has ultimately hindered the adoption of HEVC or at least the ability of any group to successfully charge royalties.

Another scenario Wireless Watch’s sister analyst service, Faultline Online Reporter, has suggested in the past is that AOMedia supporters will buy up what we feel are significant HEVC patents from Technicolor and bundle them into the royalty-free basket. Technicolor has been frustrated by the confusion around royalties, and this saw it drop out of the HEVC Advance patent pool in late 2016. Technicolor has been a pioneer in video codecs and claims to have 30,000 patents and patent applications, in the areas of video coding and image processing, telecommunications, user experience, security and displays.

AV1 has come up against several delays but the initial version is now supposed to roll out in the coming weeks, although this may well end up being some time in Q2. Based on Google’s VP9 codec with some added VP10 tools, AV1 has been optimized for hardware, and promises an update every 18 months or so, rather than waiting 10 years for a new hardware refresh.

“It’s definitely a pretty significant development and a sign of how times change and persistence pays off,” said Matt Frost, head of media strategy and partnerships for Google’s Chrome team.

Apple buying Netflix is a deal we feel is unlikely to happen, but there must be a hidden agenda behind Apple switching to the AOMedia camp, aside from the core compression achievements. Whether that means Tim Cook and co have had a dramatic change of heart about the way the video business will be done and is genuinely concerned with improving the video experience as a whole, not just from the point of view of Apple’s own vested interests, is probably a stretch too far.

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