AV1: The Long Road Ahead
Perspectives on the digital video world from JW Player’s SVP of Product Strategy
Last month, Apple became a founding member of the Alliance for Open Media (AOM), the project that manages development of the emerging AV1 video codec, "a next-generation video format that is . . . interoperable and open,” according to the AOM website.
The story originated simply from the word "Apple" suddenly appearing on the AOM website, yet within the video tech community it was seen as a seismic shift in the video tech industry.
And for good reason. With the addition of Apple, the AOM founding membership now includes every leading browser maker, operating system vendor, chip designer, and video delivery service. (A few significant names are still missing, most notably Samsung and Qualcomm, but that could change, because the Apple news proved that anything is possible.)
Getting all of these companies to essentially endorse AV1 was a major achievement; getting them to accept a royalty-free patent license for their contributions was unprecedented.
The AV1 Difference
After working in this business for over 15 years, I have learned that the success of a codec—basically an algorithm for shrinking video files—depends as much on market confidence as the efficiency of the algorithm itself. Plenty of great codecs have failed because the market was wary of being sued by patent trolls or required to pay "surprise" royalties after implementing them. HEVC is the most recent example.
AV1 could be different because collectively the AOM membership owns a vast trove of intellectual property. These assets can be used to defend the technology against patent claims from interests who might not want "a next-generation video format that is...interoperable and open."
Now the Real Work Begins
The AV1 coding tools and bitstream definition are almost complete, due largely to contributions from Google, Mozilla and Cisco, but they are only the beginning.
First, there is the matter of cooperation. To complete AV1, all the AOM contributors will need to simply get along. This could be tricky, because the AOM is also remarkable in that so many of its members compete with each other, and often do so quite, um, aggressively, to put it mildly.
Beyond that, for AV1 to become the new lingua franca of Internet video (as H.264/AVC is today), many other pieces must fall into place, such as a well-written specification, widespread decoding support in browsers, operating systems and device hardware, and broad implementation throughout the video creation and delivery ecosystems (encoders, editing software, adaptive streaming protocols & packagers, workflow management, and CDNs, just for a start).
Among industry people I've spoken to, the consensus is that it will take two years from bitstream completion for AV1 to be mature enough for mass adoption.
I don't say all of this to be pessimistic. On the contrary, I'm optimistic about AV1 and excited for the day when we start rolling it out to JW Player users. I just think we need to be realistic about how long it will take to reach that day.
John is SVP of Product Strategy at JW Player. He was Product Manager of the WebM Project from 2010-14.
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