Why Apple’s HEVC Announcement Is A Big Step Forward For The Streaming Media Industry

The battle for bandwidth is nothing new. As CE manufacturers push the bounds on display technologies, and with 360 and VR production companies demonstrating ever more creative content, the capacity of networks will be taxed to levels much greater than we see today. For this reason, the Apple announcement at their 2017 Worldwide Developers Conference that they are supporting HEVC in High Sierra (macOS) and iOS 11 is going to be a big deal for the streaming media industry. There is little doubt that we are going to need that big bandwidth reduction that HEVC can deliver.

While HEVC has already been established on some level since Netflix, VUDU, Fandango Now, and Amazon Instant Video have been distributing HEVC encoded content, that’s all been to non-mobile devices to date. But what about the second screen, where more than 50% of viewing time is occurring? With this announcement, Apple set the de-facto standard for the premium codec on second screen devices. We know that H.264 is supported fully across the mobile device ecosystem and any codec, which is going to replace it must have a realistic path to being ubiquitous across devices and operating systems. That’s why the argument from some that VP9 will win on mobile, never made sense, as I don’t see any scenario where Apple would adopt a Google video codec. But prior to Monday morning June 5th, 2017, and the WWDC2017 HEVC announcement, no one could say for certain that this wouldn’t happen.

We’ll likely never know what the considerations were for Apple to select HEVC over VP9. With VP9 supported only on Android devices while HEVC is supported on Apple as well as certain Android devices such as the Samsung Galaxy S8 and Galaxy Tab, streaming services now face a conundrum. Do they encode their entire library twice (HEVC and VP9) or only once (HEVC) to cover iOS devices and connected TVs? The decision is an obvious one. HEVC should receive the priority over VP9 as most services have too much content to maintain three libraries (H.264, HEVC, VP9). When you consider that HEVC decoding is available in software and hardware for Android, the choice to deploy HEVC as the next generation codec beyond H.264 seems an obvious one.

With Beamr and other HEVC vendors supporting OTT streaming services in production since 2014, we are well down the road with a proven technology in HEVC. And as we heard from Joe Inzerillo, CTO of BAMTech during his keynote talk at Streaming Media East show, serious companies should not be wasting time with “free” technology that ultimately is unproven legally. Though Joe may have been thinking of VP9 when he made this statement, it could have also been referring to the Alliance for Open Media codec AV1 which has been receiving some press of late mainly for being “free.” My issue with AV1 is that the spec is not finalized so early proof of concepts can be nothing more than just that, proof of concepts that may never see production for at least 18-24 months if not longer. Then there is the issue of playback support for AV1 where to put it simply, there is none.

What Apple delivers to the industry with adoption of HEVC is 1 billion active iOS devices across the globe, where consumer demand for video has never been higher. Until today, OTT services have been limited by only having access to an H.264 codec across the massive Apple device ecosystem. I predict that the first “user” of the HEVC capability will be Apple themselves, as they will likely re-encode their entire library including SD and HD videos to take advantage of the 40% bitrate reduction that HEVC can deliver over H.264, as Apple has claimed. Streaming services with apps in the app store, or those who deliver content for playback on iOS devices will need to be mindful that the consumer will be able to see the improved UX and bandwidth savings from iTunes, along with higher quality.

I reached out to Beamr to get their take on the Apple HEVC news and Mark Donnigan, VP of marketing make three good point to me. The first point is that higher quality at lower bitrates will be a basic requirement to compete successfully in the OTT market. As Mark commented, “Beamr’s rationale for making this claim is that consumers are growing to expect ever higher quality video and entertainment services. Thus the service that can deliver the best quality with the least amount of bits (lowest bandwidth) is going to be noticed and in time preferred by consumers.” Beamr has been hitting their speed claim hard saying that they can deliver an 80% speed boost with Beamr 5 compared to x265, which removes the technical overhead of HEVC.

Mark also suggested that, “there is no time to wait for integrating HEVC encoding into content owners video workflow. Though every vendor will make the time is of the essence claim, in this case, it’s possible that they aren’t stretching things. With iOS 11 and High Sierra public betas rolling out to developers in June, and to users this fall, video distributors who have not yet commissioned an HEVC encoding workflow don’t have a good reason to still be waiting.” It’s well known that outside of Netflix, VUDU, Amazon Instant Video and a small number of niche content distributors, HEVC is not in wide use today. However, active testing and evaluation of HEVC has been going on for several years now. Which means it’s possible that there are services closer to going live than some realize.

Finally, Mark also correctly pointed out that Apple is clearly planning to support HDR with displays and content. With the announcement that the new iMac’s will sport a 500 nit display, 10-bit graphics support (needed for HDR) and will be powered by the 7th generation Intel Kaby Lake processor with Iris Pro GPU, Apple is raising the bar on consumer experience. Not every home may have an HDR capable TV, but with Apple pushing their display and device capabilities ever higher, consumers will grow to expect HDR content even on their iOS devices. Soon it will not be sufficient to treat the mobile device as a second class playback screen. As Mark told me, “Services who do not adopt HDR encoding capabilities (and HEVC is the mandatory codec for the HDR10 standard), will find their position in the market difficult to maintain.” Studies continue to show that higher resolution is difficult for consumers to see, but HDR can be appreciated by everyone regardless of screen size.

Apple drives many trends in our industry, and history has shown that those who ignore them do so at their peril. Whether you operate a high-end service that differentiates based on video quality and user experience, or you operate a volume based service where delivery cost is a key factor, HEVC is here. With HEVC as the preferred codec supported by the TV manufactures, and adopted by some Android devices, and with Apple bringing on board up to 1 billion HEVC capable devices, it seems HEVC has been prioritized by the industry as the next generation codec of choice.