One of the most talked-about video codecs in the last year, H.264, will make its debut in QuickTime 7 this year when Apple ships Mac OS X Tiger. Apple says that because H.264 is a standard and has been adopted by standards organizations and many other companies the battle for the successor to the current MPEG-2 video standard is basically over.
H.264 is a video compression technology that’s used in MPEG-4 — the industry-standard video technology that uses Apple’s QuickTime file format as its basis. Apple has built H.264 right into the QuickTime media architecture the same way as it has other QuickTime video codecs. This way, developers will be able to easily access QuickTime Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) to support H.264 encoding and decoding capabilities in their own software and users will be able to select H.264 as an output option for their QuickTime-based projects.
“As of this month there are over 120 companies that have announced over 200 specific products that will read, write, distribute or in some way work with H.264,” Frank Casanova, Apple’s director of QuickTime product marketing, told MacCentral. Casanova points to companies like British Telecom, Intel, Motorola, Samsung and DirecTV as examples of companies that have chosen H.264 as the future for their industries.
One feature that makes H.264 particularly noteworthy is its ability to deliver the same quality of video as you see on a DVD, for example, at up to half the data rate. Another is H.264’s ability to smoothly scale from very limited bandwidth applications like 3G cell phones all the way up to HD-quality video, and everything in between.
With its ability to encode content for so many mediums, Apple 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.
H.264 gained traction last year being ratified for the HD-DVD and Blu-Ray specifications — the two new high definition DVD content standards. In November the Digital Video Broadcasting Steering Board approved a revision to its implementation guidelines for audio and video codecs over a broadcast Transport Stream. The revision included the Apple-supported H.264. The technology has also received the nod from the MPEG-4 group, the 3GPP group and the Association of Japanese Broadcasters.
“They have said the future of their digital transport is H.264 because of its efficiency and quality,” said Casanova. “Before its even shipped in any significant volume there are already hundreds of products that are being developed for it.”
With its current model, Apple says that it will be able to distribute millions of copies of H.264 with QuickTime 7 fairly quickly.
“Clearly, when we ship QuickTime 7 in [Mac OS X] Tiger and then ship the Windows version, we are going to continue our distribution where we left off with QuickTime 6,” said Casanova. “We have distributed over 300 million copies of QuickTime 6 and we distribute 400,000 copies a day.”
H.264 at work
People that want to see how H.264 works have to look no further than a Steve Jobs keynote. Since Jobs started showing the new version of iChat AV that will be included with Mac OS X Tiger, people have been seeing H.264 at work.
“H.264 is used in our iChat AV technology in Tiger,” said Casanova. “We can actually encode H.264 on Macintosh in real-time and give you a pristine video conferencing experience.”
From Hollywood to your house
Apple said that when they show H.264 to the people in Hollywood responsible for the “dailies” (daily rendering of films) and other projects, they are very impressed because they can produce their work with better quality at the size file size. But what about using H.264 at home?
Apple said that all users will notice a big difference using H.264, whether they are in a Hollywood film studio or at home. Any application that uses the QuickTime 7 export panel will have direct access to H.264, like Final Cut Pro, iMovie, QuickTime and any QuickTime-based third-party application.
“You will notice a difference because the video that you export now has a certain frame size and quality,” said Casanova. “Using the same settings with H.264 you will have larger frame size and better quality. There will be a noticeable advantage and benefit using H.264. that’s why it’s so exciting — it really does affect everyone.”
Although new products are on the way to support H.264, you won’t be able to burn an H.264 encoded DVD and play it on your current DVD player. Current players look for an MPEG-2 stream, while the new players will accept an H.264 stream.
H.264 is the future
Apple left no doubt that H.264 is the future, replacing current technologies. The confidence comes from the fact that the technology is not proprietary and is an accepted standard in the industry.
“H.264 is the future of broadcast — it will replace the older MPEG technologies,” said Casanova. “Because it’s a standard there are no other encroaching technologies — nothing else out there really matters. Windows Media, while good looking, is not a standard and it’s just not going to play a role in this space. We understand how it works because we contribute to the standard and we help evolve the standard — we are not trying to compete with the standard the way Microsoft is.”
The line in the sand has been drawn and Apple feels they are on the right side — the side supporting standards. Their competition, mainly Microsoft, has to date not chosen to support or contribute to the standard.
“In this entire world of standards, it is Microsoft versus the world and that’s not a good place to be,” said Casanova. “The world has voted for standards and we are on the side of standards.”