HEVC Advance casts shadow over future of WebRTC video

Google must be thinking “We tried to warn you!Google

There is recent news about a new H.265 patent pool and licensing entity called HEVC Advance. As with other patent pools, their goal is to collect a large number of patents and then license them to companies who want to make use of the technology. Much as the MPEG-LA has done with H.264 (among others), HEVC Advance seeks to generate revenue for H.265 patent holders.

What’s a Codec?

For those not familiar with the issues: when transmitting video across the internet, you need a way to package up the video and send it to the other end of the connection. This packaging is known as a “codec”, short for COmpressor/DECompressor. Good codecs strike a balance between image quality, bandwidth used, and resilience to congestion. The current video codecs mandated by WebRTC are VP8 and H.264. There are separate requirements for audio codecs, but they are far less contentious.

HEVC Advance & WebRTC

HEVA AdvanceHow does this new patent pool impact to WebRTC? In the short term, I don’t think it has much impact at all. After a couple years of trench warfare between VP8 and H.264, I don’t think there’s a lot of enthusiasm to reignite the battle. The compromise reached in the IETF to select both really was a stalemate conclusion: both H.264 and VP8 are “Mandatory to Implement” (MTI) for WebRTC. If either codec is eventually shown to be royalty-free, then that codec becomes the only MTI codec. This is unlikely to happen for H.264, though it is possible for VP8. Since the HEVC Advance patents don’t apply to H.264, this news does not sway the status quo.

However, the longer term prospects are murkier. My personal opinion is that the HEVC Advance patent pool is unlikely to be successful in the market. It is essentially asking companies to license their patents without first disclosing the actual patents included, nor even the actual member organizations (according to HEVC Advance, the members are still finalizing contracts). Once that’s done, there is still work to be done to assess and certify that the held patents apply to H.265 and to WebRTC implementations of H.265.

But the real problem isn’t the validity, or lack thereof, of HEVC Advance’s claims over H.265. The real impact is the perception. H.264 was only palatable to the WebRTC standards bodies because Cisco effectively paid the bill to MPEG-LA for everyone else. HEVC Advance’s mere presence raises the possibility that a lot more money would be required to do the same thing with H.265. The future of WebRTC depends on Open Source and royalty-free implementations. WebRTC will eventually start looking toward the next generation of codecs. To me, this looks like a strong nudge toward skipping the H.264/265 patent quagmire and moving swiftly toward VP8/VP9.

Sorry, Google. We should have listened.

What does this mean for WebRTC developers

For most of us, nothing at all. We’ll continue developing applications and delivering them to users. The biggest practical problem this creates is the uncertainty. Uncertainty means that everything slows down: companies developing WebRTC-capable devices are hesitant to invest when there may be unknown costs. Standards bodies are hesitant to select a codec when there may be a downside for future implementations. So while WebRTC developers probably won’t be directly impacted, the possibility exists that we are indirectly impacted by slowed WebRTC adoption. And nobody, no matter which side of the fence you are on, wants that.

Thanks

Special thanks to Dan Rayburn over at StreamingMedia.com for his insight into the HEVC Advance situation. He has a great introduction blog post on the issue.

Also, Emil Ivov kindly pointed out an error in the original version of this article that the codec compromise was actually the IETF, not the W3C. This has been corrected.

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