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Google is about to make streaming video way more enjoyable
A new video codec from YouTube sounds uninteresting, but it could mean the end of video buffering
 
Say goodbye to the buffering.
Say goodbye to the buffering. (Illustration by Lauren Hansen | Images courtesy Thinkstock)

Google revealed on Thursday that it's showcasing a new video codec at next week's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. It will do this by streaming YouTube video at a super-HD 4K resolution. Few things sound less interesting.

It's hard enough to get excited about the programs that encode and compress video for web streaming, but almost nobody owns a 4K television — the 4,000 refers to horizontal pixels, and such displays have roughly four times the pixels as a top-end 1,920-by-1,080 HD television. They cost thousands of dollars each. There's almost no content in 4K.

But there is something pretty big for you in that announcement, if Google can make its new codec, called VP9, compete with — or even surpass — its well-entrenched rival codec, H.265. Google is promising that VP9 can deliver top-quality video at about half the bandwidth of H.265's widely used predecessor, H.264 — meaning you won't have to wait for those cat videos or guitar tutorials to load anymore. This could be the beginning of the end of buffering. "By 2015, you’ll be surprised every time you see that spinning wheel," YouTube's Francisco Varela tells GigaOm.

VP9 also should be a boon for smartphone and tablet users, since half the video footprint means half the data consumed from your wireless plan. The benefits will first appear on YouTube and on mobile devices and computers, but the first TVs and Blu-Ray players hardwired to run VP9 should hit the shelves by the end of 2014. And Google is offering the codec royalty-free to any other streaming services that want to provide high-quality video with low bandwidth. "This is important for the entire ecosystem," Varela tells GigaOm.

Google has tried this before, with its VP8 codec, and failed. But this time it has lined up the support of 19 hardware companies, from chipmakers Intel and ARM to consumer electronics firms like Panasonic, Philips, Samsung, Sharp, Sony, and Toshiba. It wasn't hard to sign partners up, Varela tells TechCrunch, since VP9 is offered freely. To use H.264 and H.265 you have to pay a licensing fee to MPEG LA.

Varela assures GigaOm that "this certainly isn't a war of the video codecs," but of course it is. Google pioneered and mastered the tactic of giving stuff away for free to gain market dominance, from Gmail to its Android mobile operating system, and H.265 is the only real competitor standing in the realm of video codecs. Competition is generally good for consumers, so rooting for H.265's demise is overkill — we just need VP9 to gain enough saturation to guarantee its promise: Better quality video using less of the internet.

Now, if Google can only rid us of Adobe's Flash and Microsoft's Silverlight....

If you're interested in learning more about VP9 and video codecs, here's Google's unveiling of the new codec at its I/O 2013 developers' conference in May. Enjoy:

 
Peter Weber is a senior editor at TheWeek.com, and has handled the editorial night shift since 2008. A graduate of Northwestern University, Peter has worked at Facts on File and The New York Times Magazine. He speaks Spanish and Italian, and plays in an Austin rock band.

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