Bitmovin: Codec Complexity is a 'Nuclear Bomb'

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Low latency is emerging as a top focus area for 2020 to supplement the growing demand for live and interactive streaming experiences. But device complexity and codec inertia are hampering implementation, according to the results of Bitmovin's third annual Developer Report.

"There's a nuclear bomb going off in the complexity of the codec market for OTT," says Kieran Farr, VP of marketing at Bitmovin. "I think that will settle down as some [vendors] go out of business, and the rest will have to make money out of it. We are all going to have to deal with a multi-codec world."

Survey participants include representatives of OVPs, OTT providers, social media, publishers, cable and telcos, and broadcasters.

Almost half are planning to implement low-latency solutions in the next 2 years, as more emerging formats like interactive content demand increasingly "live-like" experiences.

Nearly a third of those surveyed expect latency of less than 1 second. A more "realistic and achievable goal," according to Bitmovin, is latency of less than 5 seconds (expected by half of respondents) at least in the short-term when it comes to scalable events.

"Service providers are looking for broadcast-like latency of between 5 and 10 seconds, in contrast to the de-facto online latency which is north of 30s," says Sean McCarthy, senior technical product marketing manager. "Thankfully, few people are looking for sub-second latency. For most sports events it's not realistic or necessary."

Even as demand rises for low latency, the industry is struggling to deliver it.

Low latency requires encoders, packagers, CDNs, and video players to be updated to deliver end-to-end latency targets. Achieving this across multiple devices and platforms in a consistent manner takes the complexity to a whole other level, increasing time-to-market.

"The video streaming ecosystem is quite fragmented, complex, and hence slow to change," suggests McCarthy. "Updates of low-latency standards like CMAF to PC is straightforward but can't be done as easily across devices, particularly to smartphones, which have different or long cycles for updates. That mean this new technology is not available. Cross-device complexity is the main challenge facing video streaming providers."

Bitmovin, for example, doesn't support CMAF natively in iOS because of restrictions for use by Apple. 

"It's possible to do a lot of software decoding to get around, that but it's laborious," McCarthy says.

As expected, H.264/AVC remains by far the most-used codec (by 91%) but device manufacturers, browser vendors, and content distributers like Cisco, Mozilla, and YouTube have started implementing AV1 on larger scales. Bitmovin thinks AV1 is well-positioned to compete with HEVC and to succeed VP9 for open source use cases in 2020.

"Almost everyone is reliant on H.264 as the practical encoder of choice," says Farr. "As a vendor, naturally we want encoding to move forward but this should concern the whole industry. About 90% of devices can support a codec other than H.264 but they're not moving to VP9 or HEVC which renders talk of AV1 let alone MPEG5 and VVC redundant to say the least."

Bitmovin says broadcasters can make proven CDN cost savings up to 30% or more if they employ a multi-codec approach that leverages the capability of the device and optimises the bitrate ladder, but almost none are doing so.

"Issues around HEVC costs have deterred the market … but there's also inertia among broadcasters to make change and some confusion about the right approach [caused by market complexity]."

The survey also found software on-prem encoding remains a top choice with cloud encoding implementations increasing steadily, if slowly, at 2% year-on-year growth.

Hardware encoding implementations increased by 5% in 2019, per the report. The authors attribute this to an increase in live streaming workflows depending on SDI connections, "especially those demanding low latency applications."

Additionally, hardware encoders remain the preferred choice for simplified setup and stream management, in particular among broadcasters who might be inclined to maximize the value of their investment while making a more cautious shift towards the cloud.

The free Google Analytics tool ranks as a top choice across respondents. This is usually implemented at the website level, and developers ?nd it easy to extend collecting a few additional video related metrics.

Video buffering rate is the most-used performance metric, coming in at 36.5%.

Surprisingly, a fifth of survey participants responded that they do not use any video analytics products—potentially missing out on understanding the true ROI of their video content. The thinking is that integrating insightful analytics is complex and can be costly, with not many affordable solutions available. In addition, it is hard for decision makers to understand that analytics provide a ROI. 

"Adding another layer of complexity is the fact that developers are frequently tasked with solving all of these challenges and meeting business needs around content protection and monetization," asserts Bitmovin CEO Stefan Lederer. "In short, everyone is trying to figure out how to deliver video in the highest quality, the most cost-effective way, and at scale."

The survey took the views of 542 industry execs from 108 countries in July this year.

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