With two HEVC patent pools now in the market and a third one being formed, the adoption of HEVC as the successor to H.264 is going to start getting very expensive. With that problem in mind, last week Cisco announced a new video codec project they call Thor. Cisco’s goal is to work with others to provide an alternative to HEVC, with the same or better quality, with no royalty required. While Thor is in the very early stages and is not an alternative to HEVC today, Cisco’s vision is to rally others in the industry to contribute to the project and help make higher-quality video cheaper to deploy, without the need for expensive licensing. As Cisco points out, the total costs to license H.265 from the two current pools in the market today (MPEG LA and HEVC Advance) is up to sixteen times more expensive than H.264, per unit. In addition, Sony, Panasonic, Qualcomm, Nokia & Broadcom all have extensive patents around HEVC and aren’t in either pool. Rumors have it some of them are working to form what would be a third patent pool in the market to license their HEVC technology.
Cisco has hired patent lawyers and consultants familiar with video codecs and created a development process which they say allows them to work through the long list of patents in the space, and continually evolve their codec to work around or avoid other HEVC related patents. Two weeks ago Cisco open-sourced the code and contributed it to the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), which already has a standards activity to develop a next-generation royalty free video codec in its NetVC workgroup. This is a group Mozilla has been active in and has been working on technology they call Daala, which they want to be the successor to HEVC.
Cisco is no stranger to video codecs. The company faced a unique challenge with H.264 as they and other players in the video conferencing industry wanted H.264 included in the webRTC standards in order to facilitate interoperability with their install base of conferencing equipment. However, Mozilla simply couldn’t ship H.264 due to both the licensing fees as well as incompatibilities between MPEG-LA terms and its open source nature. To fix this, Cisco offered to help with an interesting solution.
Cisco open sourced its H.264 implementation (www.openh264.org), but more importantly, it also agreed to make a binary build of its implementation available as a module. Mozilla produced a version of Firefox, which upon installation, fetches this module from Cisco and links it into Firefox. In this way, Cisco is the distributor of the module and has to carry responsibility for the license fee. Cisco agreed to foot the bill and paid the full cap to MPEG-LA. This eliminated the need to track downloads of the module since tracking of downloads would be in violation of the privacy considerations that Firefox and the community had. So in the end, thanks to Cisco, everyone won. Cisco and the videoconferencing community got H.264 into the Firefox (and later into the webRTC standards), and Mozilla got H.264 support without needing to actually ship it in Firefox.
Thor is a project; it’s not an actual video codec yet and Cisco and others have a lot of work to do, probably years, before it’s a viable alternative to HEVC. Cisco wants to start getting the word out about project Thor with the hope that others will contribute intellectual property and that technical experts with video codec knowledge will get involved. Hopefully Google takes note of this and contributes VP9 into the NetVC workgroup, which would be great for everyone. The video codec standards development process benefits heavily from having multiple contributions into the process and then evolving them to take the best of all of them for the best overall result. As Cisco points to as an example, the Opus audio codec got to where it is today in exactly the same kind of way; combining two pretty different codecs, Skype’s SILK codec and Xiph.Org’s CELT codec.
It should be noted that both Thor and Daala are far from acting as alternatives to HEVC today, but it shows that when faced with greedy patent pools, companies like Google, Cisco, Mozilla and others will seek out or create alternatives. HEVC patent pools should take note. If they push too hard and get too greedy, they could be outmaneuvered.