Friday, May 13, 2005

H.264 - The Thin End of a Big Wedge

H.264, also known as MPEG-4 Part 10, also known as Advanced Video Coding, is the New Hotness when it comes to video codecs. What's it offer? Lower bit rate (and file size) than anything else out there, while looking better. Or higher resolution, also looking better, at the same bit rate and file size. Scalability from third-generation cell phones to high-definition audio.

For example, a typical 320x240 multiplexed MPEG plays back at roughly 1.1 to 1.8 megabits of data per second; a QuickTime movie using H.264 video and AAC audio can do just as well in one half to one third the space (meaning faster downloads) - or at 1.1 to 1.8 megabits per second, can deliver two to three times the resolution. Suddenly, a "high-definition" version of something takes only as long to download as one the size of a postage stamp used to. And that "something" could be a music video, a television show, a Hollywood movie, or other content - the kind that drove sales of VCRs.

The first large-scale roll-out of H.264 capability that I know of is, of course, Apple's QuickTime 7, which is included in Mac OS X 10.4 "Tiger," available free for Mac OS X 10.3 "Panther," and will be released for Windows soon. Really. Honest. Any day now. :) Upon installing QuickTime 7, suddenly all sorts of things went all high-definition on me.

With a QuickTime 7 Pro license (which costs about $30), one can even create H.264 content, or convert other video formats to H.264. Actually doing this, though, made me aware of something:

Apple is going to make a lot of money because of H.264.

Why, you ask? Simple. My 1.5-gigahertz G4 can export video in MPEG-4 format (previously the New Hotness, now Old and Busted) with AAC audio at a speed that, while not quite real time, is pretty acceptable. A dual G5 can do an even better job of it, of course. Exporting a QuickTime movie with H.264 video is a lot more processor-intensive, and takes, oh, probably six to twelve times longer. The results are stunning, of course, but given the amount of thinking that goes into creating them, this isn't a surprise.

So while all of us who consume content are grinning our little heads off over how awesome H.264 is compared to all the old formats, the people who actually create (or even just encode) content for our consumption are now probably waiting impatiently for Apple to introduce 3-gigahertz Power Macs with 4 to 8 processor cores, so they can churn it out in a reasonable amount of time.

Elite black no-limit American Express Centurion cards at the ready, they're counting the days to Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference in June, hoping to order new ├╝ber-shiny-toys... and you know who's going to be laughing all the way to the bank when that happens.

World domination through awesome video? Yeah, I suppose that's what this is. But considering the current (if slightly faded) style of world domination was built on a feature-bloated word processor and spreadsheet and a buggy GUI with its roots in DOS and VMS... I, for one, welcome our new high-definition video overlords.

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