In addition to the five product announcements made on Sunday and the upgrades to the notebook product line-up on Monday, Apple Computer Inc. still had a surprise for people visiting their booth at this week’s National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) show in Las Vegas, NV. Apple demonstrated at its booth an advanced HD video codec, dubbed H.264 or MPEG-4 Part 10 by the ISO governing body.
“The MPEG-4 standard has been evolving very quickly — we’ve watched it go on the Internet, into 3G products and now, with this technology preview of H.264, we are going to watch it go to HD,” Frank Casanova, Apple’s director of QuickTime product marketing, told MacCentral.
ITU-T, the governing body responsible for bringing h.263 and h.261 (the codec used for video conferencing), and ISO, the governing body for the MPEG group, were both working on high-quality video codecs of their own until late last year. In November 2003 the groups pooled their resources and research to bring H.264 to the groups participants as the next high-quality video codec.
Unlike other codecs, H.264 is scalable, allowing content creators to write their content for everything from the newest 3G phones to HD, and everything in between.
“This is a very flexible and very high-quality codec. It’s based on a whole new engineering base — it’s not today’s MPEG-4 tweaked,” said Casanova.
With its ability to encode content for so many mediums, Casanova sees uses for H.264 in many of the everyday things we do today, including DVD movies, Cable television providers, on-demand television in hotels and next-generation cellular telephones. For example, with H.264, DVD content authoring houses could use the same size DVD disk, but output the content in HD quality.
“Cable providers will be able to encode their content at HD quality and send it down the wire at the same data rate as MPEG-2, yet get much better quality,” said Casanova.
As with MPEG-4 itself, H.264 is an open standard, which means that many different companies contribute to the process of evolving the codec into something the public sees on their computer or television. Even with all of the demonstrations of H.264 at NAB from different companies, there was one company absent.
“We are working on it, as are many other companies — here on the floor [at NAB] there are dozens of announcements and demonstrations of H.264. Everywhere except in the Microsoft booth,” said Casanova.
Apple has long preached the benefits of using and promoting open standards in its software. Apple contributes to many open standard projects itself including code for its Web browser, Safari and Rendezvous, Apple’s zero-configuration networking technology. Casanova believes that Microsoft’s reluctance to get involved in the open standards in this market will be a mistake.
“Microsoft has their own very capable format for this medium,” said Casanova. “The difference though is that Windows Media is closed and proprietary and as result, it will find its way into fewer places than will an open standard in the world of broadcast and cable, which has a long history of adopting open standards.”
In fact, there have been broadcasting organizations that have already pledged support for H.264 in Japan, according to Casanova, and he expects more of the same from other broadcasting communities.
“We believe the first implementation of MPEG-4 video was very good, but H.264 is the one that everyone is going to want when they see the quality,” said Casanova. “Expect to see community after community cast their vote and put their weight behind this new video standard.”
Update: 3:45 pm ET, April 20, 2004 – Changed the governing body of the MPEG standard from MPEG LA to ISO.