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Google's Royalty-Free Answer to HEVC: A Look at AV1 and the Future of Video Codecs

May 15, 2017 | Telepresence Options


Story and images by XDA-Developers

Almost 5 years ago Google first released VP9, the royalty free video codec that aimed to replace H.264 as the primary codec for online streaming and media consumption. While VP9 was not completely successful in that task, it has laid the foundation for Google's next generation codec, AOMedia Video 1 (AV1), which is looking extremely promising.

When VP9 first released, there were substantial doubts about how it would fare against the upcoming HEVC codec, which was backed by the same groups that lead to H.264's popularity over On2's TrueMotion VP3, Xiph's Theora, Microsoft's VC-1, and many others. And yet, here we are 5 years later, and VP9 has taken the world by storm. While HEVC has failed to find software support, with Edge being the only major internet browser to support it (and even then, only on certain processors), VP9 is now baked into every modern web browser except for Safari, and its royalty free nature has been a key factor in creating that situation.

In order to ship a product with HEVC support, you need to acquire licenses from at least four patent pools (MPEG LA, HEVC Advance, Technicolor, and Velos Media) as well as numerous other companies, many of which do not offer standard licensing terms (instead requiring you to negotiate terms), which can potentially cost hundreds of millions of dollars (and that's after the recent drastic cuts to HEVC royalty fees). While those steep royalties were already problematic for products like Google Chrome, Opera, Netflix, Amazon Video, Cisco WebEx Connect, Skype, and others, they completely exclude HEVC as an option for projects like Mozilla Firefox, both on an economic level (Firefox simply cannot afford to waste hundreds of millions of dollars on royalties and hundreds of man hours negotiating all the necessary licensing agreements), on a practical level (Firefox needs to be royalty-free in order to ship in many FOSS projects), and on an ideological level (Mozilla believes in a free and open web, and that isn't possible if you promote patent-encumbered standards).

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