The evolution of codecs: from MPEG-1 to Apple’s embrace of AV1
Last updated: 4 October 2023
Oh, we remember the days in 1993 when we uploaded MPEG-1 videos via our 28.8K modem. It took almost an hour to upload a minute of standard-definition video.
Time warp to 2023: nowadays we are used to real-time live streaming in 4K HDR, thanks to innovations such as fiber, WiFi and 5G, adaptive bit rate streaming and more efficient codecs.
Codec Wars: A Look Back
We also remember the codec wars, between Real, Apple, and Microsoft, and have always slightly enjoyed the promise that ‘this new codec will replace all others’, while in reality, it became yet another codec to add to the mix if it was successful.
H.264’s Dominance in the Market
Fortunately, over the past decade, H.264 has unified the industry, enabling interoperability and widespread scale across playback devices. In combination with HTTP-based streaming and advancements in streaming platforms, global CDNs and fast internet access it led to the global adoption of streaming-based services.
In the continuous search for more efficiency and even better services, innovation never stops. H.264 is a great codec for video up to full HD. But we now live in this 4K, 3D immersive world that requires even more efficient codecs.
Eco-Friendly Streaming and The Importance of Efficiency
Another reason for improved efficiency is the energy footprint of streaming. Higher-quality video requires more storage, more bandwidth, and more energy.
When we started Jet-Stream in 2003, we decided to be carbon neutral from the start, with green energy, efficient servers and algorithms that automatically scale video footprint up and down.
AV1: The New Powerhouse
And that’s where AV1 is going to play a big role. The larger the video size (such as 4K and 8K), the more AV1 can save in bit rate and file size, compared to other codecs. Another benefit of AV1 is that it is royalty-free, which helped its adoption by tech giant founding members such as Facebook, Microsoft, Google, Amazon, Netflix and Intel.
Apple’s Role in the Codec World
Fortunately, Apple announced on September 12, 2023, that it is going to support hardware-accelerated AV1 decoding in its latest chips, too. We have seen hints in the past that the always secretive Apple was working on AV1 support. For example when they released beta versions of Safari with AV1 support (and quickly pulled these releases too).
Apple may not be the first to adopt AV1, but it is a key player. Apple consumers are addicted to media playback. According to our own statistics, the percentage of media streamed at Apple devices is far greater than Apple’s market share for these devices.
If Apple had stuck to H.264 and H.265, we would -again- have a split world, a new codec war. This war seems avoided. For now. Because one thing is for sure: sooner or later, someone will release a new codec, claiming it’s going to be the one to rule and replace them all 😉 #HistoryRepeats.
The Paradox of Efficiency in Encoding
There is this interesting paradox. The more efficient the encoding, the less energy is needed for storage and networking. But video encoding and transcoding are – next to analytics – the most power-hungry services in streaming (except for end-user WiFi and displays). And AV1 is insane in the resources required to encode and transcode.
Jet-Stream’s Innovative Contribution
So in order to save resources in storage and traffic, you have to throw a lot of resources in transcoding. If you stream to the masses, this calculation is easy: the benefits outweigh the downsides. However, if you process a lot of videos for a relatively small audience, you may end up using more energy.
And that’s where hardware-accelerated transcoding becomes important. At Jet-Stream we recently won the Streaming Media Innovation Award for our latest transcoding innovation:
MaelStrom is a modern hybrid hardware and cloud software stack transcoding solution that saves an amazing 90% energy consumption versus CPU-based encoding. It also dramatically reduces per-minute transcoding costs, down to a disruptive level, thanks to acceleration, cloud automation and easy workflow orchestration. Maelstrom supports H.264 and H.265, and supports AV1 as well.
The remaining challenge for streaming service operators is to be able to recognise a device’s decoding capabilities, and then decide which codec, bit rate and screen size is the best fit, and transcode media into all the various bit rates, screen sizes and codecs to find the optimal balance between quality, quality of experience, footprint, and costs.
This is our domain at Jet-Stream. Welcome AV1!