Does The iPhone Support HD Video? I Say No. Akamai Says Yes

I thought I was all done covering the Akamai HD webcast earlier in the week, but Tim Siglin, one of the writers over at made a really good point about the webcast that I totally missed. During the webcast, Akamai said they can now deliver HD video to the iPhone, but as Tim points out, the iPhone isn't capable of getting HD content.

From Tim's Blog:

[I have nothing against Akamai in particular, but unfortunately some of the claims made can't be substantiated. One in particular struck me as key to the whole press conference. Leighton claimed that, "Today there's [sic] 50 million homes that have connected gaming consoles – or other devices – that are capable of displaying HD video, of getting it and displaying it into the home. Also, there's [sic] 45 million iPhones out there today capable of displaying HD video."

Let's take a look at the facts:

a). No one else has ever claimed that the 1st gen iPhone or even the iPhone 3G is capable of of HD playback, which is the only way to get to the 45 million iPhone number.

b) Even the claims that the iPhone 3GS is capable of displaying HD content are conjecture, as Apple does not allow HD playback on the iPhone 3GS (even 480p content can't be played back).

c) While everyone is doing "higher definition" for live streams to desktop Flash and Silverlight players, many are doing HTTP streams, and a few are doing true HD (480, 720, 1080i/p) to these same players, there are a limited number of companies doing true HD live streams via HTTP, which is where Akamai wants to tell its story. None are doing it to the iPhone, however.

The reason I say it is key to the whole press conference is this: if all Akamai is claiming is "higher definition" as its term for HD, there's no story here, since others are doing it. If they're claiming HD for the iPhone, there's a story here but not one they can support.]

Tim's absolutely right. The screen res on the iPhone, even the new one, is only 480 x 320 at 163 pixels per inch, that is not HD. How can Akamai claim it is? Tim made multiple requests to Akamai for more details and was provided with a copy of a document called "Akamai HD for iPhone Encoding Best Practices" that as Tim says, "states, on page 5, the best practice is to encode at a maximum size of 400 x 224 and a maximum bit rate of 864 kbps. Which one of these settings qualifies as HD content? You're right if you answered none of them as content encoded at this rate / size would be considered unacceptable on the desktop, and further undermines Akamai's claim of its HD network providing content owners with the ability to encode once and play out to multiple platforms/players."

So what does Akamai consider to be HD video to the iPhone? In multiple back and forth emails with them last night, (see all of them on Tim's blog) Akamai said, "we believe the following requirements should met for HD specific to mobile:

– HD source content
– Over industry accepted video standards
– Adaptive bitrate streaming technology
– At bitrates over 700Kbps
– At an appropriately high resolution for the device rendering the video

Akamai's definition of what HD is to mobile makes no sense. You can
have the best "source" you want, but that does not mean the output will
be good. As Tim says, "If I take Akamai's argument about their
definition of HD (which runs counter to Paul Sagan's opening comments
in the webcast) and ignore the arbitrary bitrate limit Akamai has set,
I can generate a 200kbps stream from the 1080p HD content I film at my
children's soccer game, and then call it HD".

If "industry accepted video standards" is one of Akamai's requirements, then what would Akamai classify as non-industry accepted video standards? Does Akamai mean over industry accepted video "protocols"? There is no "standard" in the online video industry, so no idea what that word from Akamai is defining? Standard what? There is no standard video codec, bitrate, aspect ratio, platform, player, etc….

I'm sure others have have a similar take on this, so the comments section is open and you should read Tim's blog post for more details on this whole subject.

  • What, a marketing department playing fast and loose with definitions in order to get more attention? Say it ain’t so… LOL

  • Kevin

    While I agree this whole thing was an over-hyped infomercial, I wonder how much it will help adoption of HD and higher bit rates in the market. I think most people who see and will be concerned with these things aren’t the customers. Some of course are but…
    For HD video to really take market share from the non HD video the large customers (NBC,ABC,Fox,Viacom etc)will need to adopt HD. Some decision makers might be more swayed to HD by the infomercial with buzzwords.
    You should write an article about if you think this will have any benefit or affect on the near term and long term adoption of HD. You should dedicate a portion of this article to not include the effects of this Akamai announcement but to be based on the general market trends you are seeing and anticipate in the near and long term. You could even include your pricing thoughts and why you think pricing is so important, where it is, and where you think it needs to be, and whatever other thoughts you think are relevant for us to read.
    I don’t expect you to honor my writing request tomorrow, but if you like writing blog posts and having a lot of people reading them, then I think this would be one that would interest a lot of people.

  • Kevin

    Take a look at this article. Was this written by Akamai? It’s pretty bad.
    “Akamai worked with Apple to make HD Network video run on the iPhone using the standard H.264 format. The iPhone 3.0 software upgrade, introduced in June, added support for live video. Content providers can use the HD Network to deliver programs for the iPhone through the Safari Web browser or an application offered on the App Store. The videos can play on the phone’s video player, as YouTube videos do now.”

  • The iPhone 3GS can actually play 720p and 1080p encoded in a certain way if you can transfer the files outside of Itunes. (Tim does acknowledge this) However, it stutters when the bitrate peaks are too high. Nevertheless this is still pointless considering the tiny screen-size of the iPhone and would only make sense if there were a dock output with an HDMI connection.
    What Akamai is claiming is certainly not HD. Just because the bitrate is high for 400 x 224 doesn’t suddenly make it HD. I think this is part of the bitrate “inflation” that CDNs and others are pushing; adaptive streaming being a significant component of this push in order to saturate connections unnecessarily and use unnecessary bits as well as costing you more to encode multiple times. Live events in my opinion are the only valid use-case.

  • While there is conjecture for 720p playback on the iPhone 3GS, as I mentioned on the blog post, it’s not supported by Apple, which is what piqued my interest in Akamai’s Chief Scientist Leighton’s comment in the first place.
    After all, when the Chief Scientist says something, one expects it to be accurate. Marketing playing “fast and loose” with facts is one thing; engineers and gear heads doing the same thing is rather disturbing, especially when it’s an error that’s key to their whole announcement.
    Akamai refused to correct Leighton’s statement of the HD capability on 45 million iPhones that could play HD content (which they later said included all iPod touch units, none of which play HD streams, in an attempt to make it to 45 million units). Instead they shifted to saying it was ‘HD quality’ (a term Kieran notes on his website as a buzz word that means it’s not HD) and revealed to Dan and I the “best practice” of 400×224 pixels with a middling bitrate, I realized the story was less what Akamai said during their Akamai HD Network press conference but what they didn’t say.
    Even now, it seems wants to emphasize buzz words in an attempt to gain press coverage, at the expense of clarity and ‘truth in advertising’.
    Kevin suggested, in a blog post comment, that Dan should “write an article about if you think this will have any benefit or affect on the near term and long term adoption of HD.” I certainly hope Dan will do so, specifically addressing pricing issues; in the meantime, I finished a column last evening specifically addressing the ramifications of this type of misinformation on producer and content owner adoption issue, which will appear in the next US Streaming Media magazine issue.

  • This whole discussion unfortunately has no chance of being resolved
    (1) As Tim and Dan note, Akamai’s characterization about HD on the iPhone is just plain wrong. I think there is nothing really more to add to that
    (2) However, I think from the consumer perspective the answer is a big “who cares about mobile HD?”. most days of the week, on a mobile network, simple web browsing is still slow. I would be delighted if anyone could consistently stream SD to my mobile. And given the size of the phone, you won’t be able to tell the difference anyway btw HD and SD.
    So of course the vendors push HD but I am not sure about if there is any end-user pull.
    (3) The general concept of defining HD over the web is a lost cause.
    By non-web bitrates (say Blu-Ray, which is 25 Mb/s) nothing on the web is HD. Even old fashioned SD DVDs have 5 Mb/s bitrates which is still too much for a consumer service today.
    Yet for the general web usage case today (laptop based), even a 1.5Mb/s 720p stream looks very decent.
    So, where does one draw the line on what is and is not HD? (by contrast my commercial film producers consider less than 100Mb/s filming to be for non-serious work…)
    (4) As an aside, the source does makes a real difference but it is much broader than if the source was HD or SD.
    There are “HD” video cameras for low $xxx. A professional SD camera will produce much better total image quality in many situations regards of how many pixels are there and what is the bit rate.

  • Playing devil’s advocate here: Akamai states that the iPhone is capable of playing HD video. As far as the 3G S goes they may be right – that’s if you can get the content onto the device (which Apple currently does not want you to):

  • @Antonis
    Totally agree on the mobile point and high bitrate video would probably overwhelm your local mast.
    “By non-web bitrates (say Blu-Ray, which is 25 Mb/s) nothing on the web is HD.”
    Unlike Blu-ray, HD on the web will be with incremental increases in bitrate/resolution and other features. Blu-ray bitrates are used merely to fill up the discs as opposed to any real necessity. However, unlike television which has a lower bitrate every month and with some channels (certainly in the US and more and more so in Europe) barely looking like HD, online the quality will be a race upwards as people get faster connections.
    “Even old fashioned SD DVDs have 5 Mb/s bitrates which is still too much for a consumer service today.”
    These days you’d use a more modern codec like H.264 which could deliver DVD quality sub 1mbit.
    “(by contrast my commercial film producers consider less than 100Mb/s filming to be for non-serious work…)”
    This is because they are at a different stage in the production chain. For television especially, very high bitrates are used in production because the signal will be re-encoded multiple times in the production chain and the producer is trying to avoid generation loss.
    However, in the web world if you had the actual masters you could encode a very good looking stream at web-bitrates and wouldn’t have the restriction of doing it live.

  • Steve M.

    Akamai calling video on the iPhone “HD” is nothing more than marketing. Why are we even debating this? This isn’t about opinions, it’s simply fact. Akamai’s is 100% wrong.

  • Pete Wylie

    Really good points by all, I’ll be amending my post as well to reflect Tim and Dan’s analysis. One more devil’s advocate conjecture: The iPod Touch with Wifi could potentially give Akamai a loophole to reach the 45M iPhone number.
    But again, an iPod Touch is not an iPhone, and the bitrates and resolution just don’t add up to HD. Great catch guys.

  • John C

    I have this conversation often with my customers. What is HD on the web? On TV, it’s easy, you tune to ESPN-HD, it says HD in the corner, it’s a 16:9 format and looks really good. End of discussion. But on a computer all bets are off.
    I consider HD on the web to be: 1920×1080 or 1280X720 and at least 1.5Mbps bit rate. Better quality would be 2Mbps + and real good quality would be 4Mbps or more!
    Sure there’s people out there who have written compression algorithms that can give you the quality of 2Mbps at say 1Mbps. But the second I see pixelation, you can throw the term HD out of the window!
    If you’re not displaying one of those 2 resolutions, then it’s not HD… Period! It’s just higher quality!
    Maybe they are expecting people to hook their iPhone to TV capable of those resolutions and will watch a movie from the iPhone on their TV?

  • Dan: I think the universal response to Akamai (and Apple?) (and Adobe if its come from Flash claim that 480p is HD?) is that the iPhone doesn’t do HD and that’s the end of it.
    They are flatly misrepresenting HD if they claim HD and in the UK (at least) Trading Standards could be wheeled in to give them a stroppy telling off…

  • If it’s not 1280 pixels wide or 720 pixels tall, it’s not HD. The iPhone is only 480×320, and isn’t even Standard Definition. And Akamai isn’t even requiring THAT, but only 400×224? That’s basically as many pixels about what we called “quarter screen” back in the CD-ROM era (320×240), or CIF from videoconferencing.
    Call it HQ or something to indicate that it’s better than something else, but HD has had a clear definition since the 80’s, and we ought not be debasing the term.
    Especially since actual HD on the web is quite possible now, and it’s something worth having a name for.

  • lance

    On the web HD should mean: larger than SD frame dimension and / or HD framerates (23.98 for instance) – with an expectation of a higher bitrate preferably delivered through adaptive streaming – however in this artical Akamai state a high bitrate as being over 700kbps – HD is regularly streamed at up to 3Mb/s, and the iphone obviously does not support HD frame sizes. The frame rescaling in delivery is the most important element of HD delivery to mobile devices.
    HD is an ‘exciting buzzword’ generally used to make organisations sound technilogically savvy but if the end platform does not support HD frame dimensions then essentially you just need to supply the HD framerates without the introduction of 3:2 pulldown or 4:1 etc. (i.e. a company just needs the ability to ingest and transcode HD framerates and rescale the content in an efficiant manner).
    For platforms that can support higher than SD frame sizes then the full audience expectations can be met but the bitrates available rarely do HD content justice, unless it is from an mpeg-4 based homne camcorder.

  • Akamai’s Suzanne Johnson, who will be appearing on my panel at Streaming Media Europe 2009 later today, has confirmed that a more accurate version of Tom Leighton’s “45 million iPhones capable of playing HD content” statement should have been stated as this:
    “By year’s end, as part of the Akamai HD Network, up to 45 million iPhones and iPod touches will be capable of displaying high-quality video encoded from HD source content.”
    She also stated that Akamai understand that “the iPhone does not display true HD by definition but can offer consumers an HD-like high quality video experience that complements what they get on TV.”

  • reuben

    A list of advantages of “adaptive rate over HTTP streaming” mentioned in Akamai’s HD Network press conference almost exactly resemble Microsoft/Level3 claims from “Silverlight and Smooth Streaming” webinar. Is Akamai HD network using Microsoft technology?

  • lance

    “the iPhone does not display true HD by definition but can offer consumers an HD-like high quality video experience that complements what they get on TV.”
    What’s the difference between 480 x 270 sourced from SD or HD?

  • What this could mean is that the iPhone or iPod Touch could act as a make-shift Apple TV. They envision plugging your iPhone into an Apple AV Dock connected to your HDTV. This would then be able to stream video over Wi-Fi from your computer’s iTunes library. This added functionality would skip the time-consuming step of syncing HD videos to the device itself and replicate some of the behavior of the Apple TV.