VC-1 Is Dead: Open Standards Finally Winning the Battle Against Proprietary Formats

It’s that time of the year again, where myself and the digital media team at Frost & Sullivan capture key video technology trends in the media and entertainment world. The industry has come a long way in the last three years, with the alphabet soup of walled garden formats giving way to the relative uniformity of AVC, AAC and AES-128. Granted encapsulation and streaming formats are still a complex enough mess in their own right, but that’s another post for another day.

The drive away from walled gardens towards more open standards is being driven in good measure by, surprisingly enough, Microsoft. Having announced the sunset of SmoothStreaming in 2021 and put significant energy behind DASH and open DRM interfaces for use in standards like HTML5, the company is continuing to step away from the WMV-centric media framework approach it pursued in the early 2000s. Many legacy video formats like RealPlayer and Flash have already faded away. It is perhaps a testament, however, to Microsoft’s early supremacy in the premium OTT video delivery market (although no one called it as such back then) that services like Netflix, Amazon and Rakuten continue to have VC-1 encoded content in their libraries, even though several others like Hulu and Vudu nearly ubiquitously use AVC. That said, there’s little if any incentive – we believe – for new transcoding in WMV format. Even for legacy content, we believe that either re-encoding that material or simply just-in-time transcoding it to AVC is the preferred alternative to storing and managing yet another profile, given that new connected devices are showing a clear drop year over year in support for legacy formats.

One step beyond the video essence is the streaming protocol. The debate between HTTP based streaming and UDP based streaming rages on, particularly in the context of the emergence of DASH, the sunsetting of Silverlight, the demise of Flash on mobile, and the unrelenting drumbeat of statistics that shows video traffic growing in exciting multiples year over year while infrastructure/capacity will struggle significantly to keep pace. There are indications that even stalwart CDNs like Akamai are looking past the prevalent approach of HTTP-based streaming to look at UDP-based alternatives, at least for high-volume surge content if not more broadly. However, confidence in UDP-based and P2P-based approaches in North America – which accounts for nearly 70 percent of global OTT traffic by our estimates – seems to remain quite low.

We’re currently predicting that use of VC-1 will fade out of M&E content services (enterprise is a different story) more or less entirely within 5 years, with AVC and possibly new codecs like HEVC and Google-backed VP9 starting to make niche appearances. We thought we’d reach out to readers for their feedback on these observations and predictions – are you using VC-1 in your OTT streaming offerings today, and how do you see your codec portfolio changing over the next five years? And, are you looking at UDP-based streaming solutions for your future video streaming needs (even if it’s 4-5 years out) or are you confident that technologies like DASH are the way to go? Are there particular emerging streaming solutions that you find exciting or promising? We’ll compile all our findings in a follow up post – for now, please feel free to comment below. Or if you want to have a deeper discussion on this topic, please email me and we’ll be happy to setup a time to hear your thoughts.