Next-Gen Video Alliance Challenges Widely-Used Streaming Technology

The newly formed Alliance for Open Media -- a collaboration of seven major Internet and software companies -- will develop video streaming formats, codecs and other technologies that are intended to shake up existing systems used across platforms and networks. 

One initial goal of the Alliance is to build "a next-generation royalty-free video codec." That's a way of bypassing the licensing fees that MPEG LA collects on behalf of its 35 patent-holding members, which include Apple, Cable Television Laboratories, Cisco Technology, Microsoft, Panasonic, Samsung and Sony.

Members of the new alliance are Amazon, Cisco, Google, Intel, Microsoft, Mozilla and Netflix.  Matt Frost, a Google executive and spokesman for the new group, said other organizations -- possibly including communications carriers that carry streamed programming -- are examining the new plan.

"We've seen recent interest in open video from those industry segments, so we wouldn't be surprised if carriers explored membership in the Alliance for Open Media," Frost told Multichannel News.

Alliance members are spurred by the need for advanced codecs with better compression rates as resolution and frame-rates increase on streaming video platforms. By developing a new open format, the member companies could leapfrog over the widely-used Adobe Flash standard.  Flash doesn't require extensive computer power, and it is considered insufficient for safeguarding copyrighted content; it is being blocked on many platforms.

The new group's initial focus on royalty-free content encryption underscores the members' objective to assure content producers their delivery systems are "safe." To obtain programming licensing rights, streaming packagers such as Netflix, Amazon and Google (via its YouTube subsidiary) must convince content creators that their systems are sufficiently encrypted.

Establishing -- and optimizing -- a single codec is seen as vital; multiple video patents raise impediments to the streaming purveyors.  The Alliance surfaced just as another collaborative venture, HEVC Advance LLC is struggling to launch its next patent-protected system that promises to handle 4K UHD video. MPEG LA collects the patent licensing fees for the current HEVC AVC/H.264 codec technology.

The alliance's first project will create a new, open, royalty-free video codec specification, along with binding specifications for media format, content encryption and adaptive streaming, thereby creating opportunities for next-generation media experiences. The codec is expected to be based on existing royalty-free projects that several of the founding members have been developing, such as Cisco's "Thor," Mozilla's "Daala" and Google's "VP9" and "VP10."

The new software will be optimized for the Web, scalable to any modern device at any bandwidth and "designed with a low computational footprint and optimized for hardware," according to the alliance.

Significantly a major objective of the alliance is to make the software "capable of consistent, highest-quality, real-time video delivery," indicating the video content packager's potential intent to transmit live programming. The codec is also expected to be adaptable to both commercial and non-commercial content, including user-generated content.

“Customer expectations for media delivery continue to grow, and fulfilling their expectations requires the concerted energy of the entire ecosystem,” said Gabe Frost, executive director of the alliance, in a statement.

Notably absent from the alliance's roster of streaming video-oriented content packagers is Apple, which is currently a member of MPEG LA and which unveiled its latest feature-laden Apple TV product a few days after the alliance's debut. Facebook, which is also beefing up its video delivery options, was another no-show at the alliance's first member meeting.

In its announcement, the new alliance stresses the planned collaboration of codec development by its member companies. Yet analysts point out that several of the powerful member companies may push to have their own technology adopted, which could lead to quarrels and delays for the new codecs and encryption plans. 

Although the Alliance for Open Media has not yet laid out its development timetable, Jonathan Khazam, vice president and general manager of Intel’s Visual & Parallel Computing group, summed up the group's perceived necessity.

"The alliance’s open framework will enable ... members to help usher in the next generation of video-oriented experiences that combine higher quality with lower delivery costs," Khazam said.

Those sound like competitive words!

Gary Arlen

Contributor Gary Arlen is known for his insights into the convergence of media, telecom, content and technology. Gary was founder/editor/publisher of Interactivity Report, TeleServices Report and other influential newsletters; he was the longtime “curmudgeon” columnist for Multichannel News as well as a regular contributor to AdMap, Washington Technology and Telecommunications Reports. He writes regularly about trends and media/marketing for the Consumer Technology Association's i3 magazine plus several blogs. Gary has taught media-focused courses on the adjunct faculties at George Mason University and American University and has guest-lectured at MIT, Harvard, UCLA, University of Southern California and Northwestern University and at countless media, marketing and technology industry events. As President of Arlen Communications LLC, he has provided analyses about the development of applications and services for entertainment, marketing and e-commerce.