One of the most important dates on the tech calendar is Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC), held in early June. It’s a chance for the brand to show off its latest and greatest, both in terms of new hardware and releasing new software for existing devices. While the release of a new iMacpro might get all of the attention, this year’s WWDC featured an exciting announcement that came almost completely out of the blue.
It may not sound like much, but this proclamation was that Apple would be supporting a new codec – HEVC – across all of its devices. It’s kind of a big deal, and has the potential to completely change the world of video.
What is HEVC? And why should I care?
You’d be forgiven for not having heard of HEVC, which stands for High Efficiency Video Encoding but its alias H.265 might ring a few bells. Yes, this is the long-awaited successor to H.264 (also called Advanced Video Coding, or AVC), which we all know from its starring role as the compression format used in Blu-ray discs, My Sky and Freeview broadcast. HEVC is designed as H.264’s successor, with CNET explaining that: “The idea is to offer the same level of picture quality as AVC, but with better compression, so there’s less data to deal with. This is key if we want 4K/Ultra HD broadcasts (including satellite), 4K Blu-rays, and more.”
Compression is crucial to transform the massive amounts of raw data that come out of high-end video cameras into more manageable broadcast chunks – whether that’s via satellite, the internet or a physical disc. What HEVC promises is the ability not only to compress more, but to compress smarter. This more efficient process will make it possible to compress images into much smaller sizes than H.264, but without a loss of quality.
Tom Vaughan of MultiCoreWare, which developed the open-source x265 encoder, explained to Digital Trends that this greater efficiency effectively means “video can be shown at the same quality while consuming less bandwidth, or bandwidth can be maintained to achieve greater quality. We can be up to twice as efficient as H.264.”
It’s all very exciting, but a fancy new codec isn’t worth very much if none of the major players in the tech world are willing to adopt it. Enter Apple, and it’s announcement that HEVC will be supported in all devices running iOS 11. By lifting up H.265 and showing it to the world – like Simba in The Lion King – Apple is making a statement, and proclaiming HEVC the new king of codecs.
— AppleInsider (@appleinsider) June 12, 2017
Why does Apple care about HEVC?
From a device perspective, it makes complete sense why Apple would be interested in HEVC. The ability to provide users with better quality video at smaller file sizes is a big selling point, especially in terms of streaming. In fact, many believe that Apple is using this announcement to dip a toe in the HEVC waters before rolling out a new version of the Apple TV that brings 4K to homes around the world.
By lifting up H.265 and showing it to the world – like Simba in The Lion King – Apple is proclaiming the new king of codecs.
But why did Apple choose HEVC? There are alternative codecs out there that they could have gone with, such as VP9, which was developed by Google and is already available on Android devices. Well, therein lies the answer! By crowning HEVC the heir apparent to H.264, Apple has put streaming providers in the position of either encoding everything in both formats, or simply choosing the codec with the greatest support. With some estimates putting the number of active Apple devices at over a billion worldwide, HEVC is now the only reasonable choice, with VP9 being unusable on these devices.
“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,” explains Dan Rayburn of Streaming Media.
Apple has played kingmaker before (you can check out our article on USB-C and Thunderbolt 3 for another example), and this is a classic move from the company that ensures it remains at the cutting edge of video technology for at least the next decade – H.264 was released in 2003, and there’s no reason to suspect HEVC won’t have a similarly long life.
Now, the question remains how HEVC’s wide adoption will affect the video industry. From better streaming services through to more 4K content, we can all expect to see some big changes over the next few years. More importantly, with smaller file sizes, there’s now no excuse for not broadcasting in the very best quality possible, and to do that the right equipment is essential.
For more info on all things video, give the DVT team a call today.
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