If you’ve taken a look at the recommended video formats for various social media platforms, you’ll notice that most share one thing in common: H.264.
For years now H.264 has reigned supreme as the king of video codecs. Its use in online videos is almost universal, despite some platforms using VP8 or VP9 on a limited basis.
But the recent release of the AV1 format could potentially change all that. In theory it could very well supplant H.264 completely on social media – but the question is will it start to be used, and when?
How Can AV1 Benefit Social Media Platforms?
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AV1 is a next-generation video codec that was developed by the Alliance of Open Media (AOMedia). The members of AOMedia came together to create a codec that was designed specifically to cater to the growing demand for higher quality online videos.
For social media platforms, there are two main aspects of AV1 that make it an attractive option:
The compression used by AV1 is more efficient than any of the current generation of video codecs. Tests have shown that it can provide gains of up to 30% to 40% compared to formats such as HEVC and VP9.
It is expected that the gains could be even better at higher resolutions.
That can make a world of difference to social media platforms. Not only will it mean that the storage space required by videos will be significantly less, but the network and bandwidth requirement to stream them will be reduced as well.
As 4K displays become more popular and the demand for 4K video continues to rise, any improvement to video compression will have a big impact – especially considering 8K is just on the horizon as well.
Overall this will translate into significantly lower costs for social media platforms.
From its conception, AV1 was designed to be a royalty-free alternative to HEVC. All the members of AOMedia that participated in its development agreed to license their patents on a royalty-free basis.
The use of a royalty-free codec would definitely appeal to social media platforms, and would reduce the administrative and licensing costs of using the codec to deliver video. On top of that it would be far less complicated to navigate, especially compared to the current licensing structure of many formats.
One of the main hurdles that has constantly delayed the adoption of HEVC is its complex licensing structure. In theory that will not be an issue for AV1 due to its royalty-free status.
Between both these benefits, social media platforms stand to save significantly on costs by using the AV1 format. Which is why you may be wondering: Why aren’t they already using it?
Hurdles to AV1 Adoption
Although technically social media platforms could switch their videos over to AV1 – that wouldn’t exactly be a good idea just yet. The fact of the matter is that social media does not exist in a void, and it requires the ecosystem surrounding AV1 to be in place before it can migrate a significant portion of its videos.
In particular there are several key hurdles that need to be passed in order for social media to start rolling out AV1 videos:
- Software decoders
For viewers to be able to watch AV1 videos the format needs to be able to be decoded. That is why software decoders are necessary, and will need to be present in user devices for social media platforms to serve AV1 videos.
Significant progress has been made on that front already, with several software decoders being made available. One of the most notable in terms of performance is the dav1d decoder that was developed by the communities at VideoLAN, VLC, and FFmpeg.
- Browser support
The availability of software decoders is a start, but they need to be supported in browsers that are used to view social media platforms. That is already underway however, as the desktop versions of browsers such as Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, and Opera already support AV1 in some form or other.
Microsoft Edge can support AV1 videos as well, via the AV1 Video Extension from the Microsoft Store. That leaves Safari as the one major browser yet to support the format, as well as mobile browsers.
- Hardware support
Hardware support for AV1 encoding and decoding is important, especially for videos to be viewed on mobile devices. The CPU-intensive nature of software encoding and decoding does not lend itself well to mobile devices, and requires significant battery power.
Chips featuring hardware support for AV1 are only expected in the latter part of 2019. It will be some time till they make their way out in consumer devices, which will probably only be 2020.
Although several software-based AV1 encoders are available, there are still questions to be asked regarding their performance. For now one of the better options appears to be the SVT-AV1 encoder developed by Intel and Netflix.
It won’t be until hardware support for AV1 is available that the real test of its performance can be carried out. It would have to be satisfactory enough for social media platforms to be able to justify using the format as the staple codec.
Suffice to say these hurdles are the reason why social media platforms haven’t switched over to AV1 yet. However just as progress has been made to each of them, social media platforms have been making progress of their own as well.
Current Adoption of AV1 on Social Media
Although AV1 is a long way from replacing H.264 on social media platforms, it has already started to be tested and used.
One of the first tests of AV1 was actually carried out by Facebook. It tested the format on 400 of its most-viewed public videos, and reported encouraging results in terms of compression gains in the 50% range.
After the test it was stated that Facebook would start to gradually serve up AV1 content as support for the format started to grow.
Shortly after Facebook carried out its test, YouTube began testing AV1 as well via its AV1 Beta Launch Playlist. The playlist encompasses a selection of 14 videos of popular content from the platform that are encoded at high bitrates in order to test the performance of the format.
It is safe to say AV1 videos are already starting to make their way out into the world via social media. That is likely to continue to proceed gradually as the rest of the ecosystem starts to fall into place.
All in all it seems as though it really is a case of when AV1 starts to be used more extensively by social media – not if. However as much as the prospects of AV1 appear bright, it is far from a foregone conclusion.
Some of the challenges that AV1 is likely to face in the future are:
- Legal challenges and patent claimsthat could affect its royalty-free status.
- Delays in hardware supportthat affect the timeline for devices to reach consumers.
- Performance issueswhen encoding or decoding AV1 videos that require optimization.
Of the three, the first is the one that could cause the most issues. Although AV1 was double-vetted for any potential IP-infringements during its development, there may still be some claims that surface.
If the royalty-free status of AV1 is challenged, it may affect its viability. That being said as things stand there is still no signs of any claims being filed, and AOMedia has established a patent defense program in the event that there is one.
The other challenges could delay the adoption of AV1 by social media platforms – but are not likely to stand in its way in the long term.
Over the next few months it is likely that the use of AV1 will continue to grow steadily. As you may have noticed much of its adoption has been buoyed by the efforts of AOMedia members who are primarily behind its rapidly expanding ecosystem.
On the social media front Facebook (and Instagram) and YouTube (via Google) are likely to pioneer the use of AV1 seeing as both are founding members of AOMedia. However due to the benefits that the format brings to the table, other social media platforms probably won’t be far behind them.
If you’re expecting AV1 to replace H.264 as the recommended format to encode videos for social media – that may not happen just yet. For that particular step to be taken, AV1 encoding would have to be more accessible to average consumers. Ideally it would be as simple as converting videos with this service.
To sum it up while there is no definitive timeline as to when AV1 will be used more extensively on social media, it seems to be heading down that path at a steady pace. The next year or so should provide a clearer picture as to whether or not it will actually fully supplant H.264 as the format of choice for most social media platforms.