Coming Soon: WebRTC Dream, Realized

A funny thing happened on the way to royalty-free video, a journey that started back in 2010 when Google announced the WebM Project to develop an open video format for the Web. Many assumed that browser vendors would widely support an open, royalty-free codec, thus unleashing video on a text-dominated Internet. It didn't go as planned.

The biggest barrier to change is typically incumbents, as was the case here. A lot of organizations were happy with the prevalent technology at the time: the H.264 codec. A patent consortium known as MPEG LA managed and licensed the patents needed for H.264, and the codec was well entrenched in services and hardware across numerous consumer and industrial applications.

H.264 has had a great run. The technology, now about 15 years old, came into existence well before 4K video, virtual reality, and augmented reality.

From WebM to WebRTC

The WebM Project offered an alternative codec, known as VP8, that Google obtained in the 2010 acquisition of On2 Technologies. Google, along with other browser vendors Mozilla and Opera, offered WebM with VP8 as an alternative, free codec. Although WebM with VP8 launched with commitments from 40 partners, it never gained universal acceptance. Neither Apple nor Microsoft supported it in their browsers.

The WebM Project evolved into WebRTC initiatives -- and in 2014, the WebRTC development teams ended up compromising on universal, royalty-free video, and agreed to specify support for both VP8 and H.264.

Of course, the evolution of video codecs continued. H.264 evolved into H.265 (HEVC), and VP8 evolved into VP9. Each specification offered a new set of benefits and trade-offs, along with variations in support and acceptance. A universal codec, royalty-free or licensed, appeared lost.

Resurrected Hope

The Alliance for Open Media (AOMedia) initiative, launched in the fall of 2015 to revise the goal of a royalty-free video format, started by aligning all the major players. It initially brought together seven big names, including Microsoft, Cisco, Apple, and Amazon, and quickly expanded to 12 "founding members" plus 22 promoting members.

With membership, each of these companies agrees to grant any necessary intellectual property that it owned toward a royalty-free specification. Beyond royalty-free, AOMedia goals include a codec experience as good as or better than H.265 to be made available in an open-source reference.

AOMedia officially released the result, known as AV1, in March. AV1 is a derivative of VP9 (and VP8) that promises 30% better compression than VP9. It's designed for both video streaming and real-time communications.

Today, AOMedia membership includes all of the major browser and video streaming companies, several major chipset vendors, and Facebook. Momentum continues to build, as illustrated by Vimeo's announcement two weeks ago that it's supporting AV1 as well. Though Apple never supported VP8, its membership in the alliance suggests that it intends to support AV1 on iOS and Safari.

Regarding real-time communications, AOMedia includes video conferencing vendors such as Cisco, Microsoft, Polycom, and, as previously mentioned, Facebook and Google. Alex Eleftheriadis, co-founder and chief scientist of Vidyo, spearheaded the AV1 subgroup for real-time video communications, and today Vidyo and Polycom representatives co-chair the subcommittee.

Vidyo's involvement is probably why scalable video coding (SVC), which supports spatial and temporal attributes, is a core part of AV1. Contrary to VP9, SVC has been incorporated into AV1 from the very beginning.

Bigger, Better, Badder

With the first specification of AV1 released, we should see multiple implementations by year-end, with applications generally available in early 2019. Optimized hardware is expected later next year. Mass adoption should be underway by early 2020 -- a decade after WebM.

AV1 is what many wanted and expected from WebRTC, but it's bigger, better, and badder. It's effectively VP10 with SVC. WebRTC will presumably embrace AV1 and eventually end its debilitating compromise of two optional codecs.

Royalty-free video is upon us. I expect we will soon be hearing a lot about AV1, both from the vendors in their roadmaps and at events such as InfoComm 2018, the AV-oriented conference taking place next week.

Dave Michels is a contributing editor and analyst at TalkingPointz.

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