How is mobile video's encoding technology changing?



Video will generate a whopping 71 percent of all mobile data traffic by 2016, according to data from The Cisco Visual Networking Index Global Mobile Data Traffic Forecast. But how is that traffic actually being transmitted?

Mobile video is generally bandwidth heavy. Streaming content from the cloud over a 3G or 4G connection can be slow, depending on signal strength and how many other users are trying to access content locally. This is also a problem for users streaming content from a third-party app or website.

Content developers and distributors need to be aware of how their content will be distributed over these networks in order to maximize its efficiency. For one, using a data-heavy transmission method on a slower connection will frustrate users and shorten the amount of time users spend viewing content from that service or provider. Essentially, high-definition, long-form videos and short-form videos need to be treated differently.

The overwhelming majority of mobile videos--including YouTube, Vimeo, Google and Apple's iTunes rentals--are streamed using the H.264 standard, also known as an MPEG-4 Part 10. The H.264 standard is attractive due to its ability to handle high-definition video at a much lower bit rate than previous video codec standards.

However, the H.264 standard isn't the only player in this space. Fred Koopmans, director of product management at Bytemobile, a company that specializes in mobile network solutions, explained: "The MPEG-4 is used for low resolution and low performing devices. For example, on YouTube, MPEG-4 is what they use for a low end feature phone that cannot download the higher bit rate."

The natural successor to the H.264 is the H.265 standard, also called High Efficiency Video Coding (HEVC), which aims to improve video quality while doubling the data compression ratio of its predecessor. The final standard ratification of H.265, however, won't be until January 2013.

While this new technology would be more efficient, Koopmans is reluctant to believe it will catch on with mobile content providers quickly.

"Changing codecs is not something you do over night. You have got a lot of legacy devices out there," Koopmans explained. Any content provider with a large library, such as Netflix or YouTube, would need to convert all of its pre-existing content to this standard and ensure it is compatible with the latest version of various mobile operating systems, as well as devices like Microsoft's Xbox or the Nintendo Wii, which also stream video.

Due to the differences in device compatibility, switching to a new codec like the H.265 is thus a hardware change rather than a software change. It's also important to note that H.264 itself is evolving, and it is not the same standard it was in 2003 when it was initially completed. The standard has changed to handle higher quality, more complex videos.

Koopmans predicts that H.265 will initially be embraced by a startup without a large library it would need to convert to the newer standard.

There have been many efforts to deliver video much more efficiently, explained Arielle Sumits, an analyst with Cisco Market Intelligence. "Every time there's an advance in efficiency, the content providers are driving the bit rate back up. The end users seem to want that as well," she said.

For developers, maximizing video is especially efficient if wireless operators like AT&T go through with plans to charge developers for how much data users of their apps consume. A developer that specializes in mobile video apps would need to increase his or her prices for consumers in order to cover these costs.

Moving to H.265 or another, more advanced standard would help alleviate some of these costs by decreasing the amount of data used by a video app. But, at the same time, developers and content providers will need to work to update older files to prevent fragmentation in the market. No catch-all solution will work for all developers, but it is best to be prepared depending on the type of content you publish or produce. --Sandhya