20 April 2007

WMA RIP Follow-up - H.264 to kill VC-1?

Following on from my recent post in which I claimed Windows Media Audio (WMA) was effectively dead and that I hoped the battleground would now move on to ensuring the same happened to WMV (by a hopefully victorious by MPEG-4 Part10/AVC/H.264), I was encouraged by two pieces of news last week.

The first was a report over at The Register about how Microsoft had got "mugged" over VC-1 codec patent terms by the other companies who had claims to some patents that were part of this standard (VC-1 is a fundamental part of WMV). In essence, Microsoft gets less than many of its competitors for every VC-1 license. As Microsoft gives this away in many of its products, it actually costs it money. The article also argued how H.264 had become the preferred codec for many people. I am seeing this mentioned increasingly in blog postings etc.

I can't comment on the accuracy of this article, though the author's knowledge seems pretty deep on the subject.

However in the same week, Microsoft itself released a long-expected XBox 360 update. One of its features includes H.264 playback capability. (A side note for AppleTV bashers - XBox360 also only does 2-channel audio playback!)

I think this move is equivalent to Microsoft's inclusion of AAC playback on its Zune player and is indeed a smart move. With Sony using MPEG video standards also, and of course AppleTV, iPod and other Apple products leveraging this standard, it seems to me that Microsoft is also acknowledging that at the very least, it must let the market decide, and that it cannot impose VC-1 on the world.

Those who produce content in H.264 can easily supply such content to iPod owners, Mac owners, AppleTV owners, Sony PS3 and PSP owners, many Nokia phones, as well as to XBox360 owners. Unfortunately, due to resolution and other differences in device capabilities, there may still have to be multiple versions of the content, but use of a single standard will certainly simplify things for many content providers (and users). It would thus seem a suicidal move for a content company to produce just VC-1 material and limit its market. Likewise, a company producing a playback device would be foolish not to provide for H.264, and may consider cutting WMV/VC-1 support.

It is still too early to decide this matter, but I think it is certainly a move in the right direction. If both WMA and WMV's influences are curtailed I think it's a great win for the consumer. These were Microsoft's opportunity to impose the next lock-ins on users (after Office formats were opened up), and competition authorities had failed to do anything about it. I personally believe it is lock-ins such as these that have prolonged Microsoft's massive hold on the computer user (how could any business user NOT use MS Office?). In this post-PC world of many and varied devices, Microsoft will have to compete on capability alone - though with the backing of it's huge reserves and user inertia to help it along the way, it is still very much able to flex its muscles. That's good news for Microsoft's competitors, and it's even better news for us consumers. In the end, perhaps the market has done the job that the competition authorities were unwilling and incapable of doing*. It has taken too long and there are legacy issues (eg BBC tying itself to Microsoft's "standards" for some of its initial services to consumers thus locking out Mac and Linux users, while adopting H.264 for others). But, it is at least happening.

What do you think? Is H.264 going to become the de facto codec for video for the next generation of devices? Can/will Microsoft impose its own standard after all? Is something else going to do it (Flash, DivX, etc)?

* Footnote: Of course, there is a counter argument, that it is not so much the market that made it happen, but Microsoft's own internal failings. After all with WMA, WMV, Windows Mobile, Windows CE, XBox, Vista in every flavour imaginable etc. it certainly ATTEMPTED to cover every base. If Microsoft had executed well, it would surely have nailed this and the competition authorities would be spending the next 5-10 years trying to unravel it.

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