Codec wars – Apple drops the hammer on VP9, chooses H.265 and takes a decision for the industry

Where we stand today

The state of the 4K codec war was as follows on January 2017:


Platform H.265 VP9
Web / Browser  


    IE Yes, using MSE Yes, using MSE
    Chrome Not Supported. Not clear if can support OS feature. Supported
    Firefox Not Supported. Not clear if can support OS feature. Supported
    Safari Supported on MacOS 10.13 Not supported
Set Top Boxes Supported and broadly used Most recent Chipsets support. Not usually enabled on software
    Android Supported on Snapdragon 805-class onwards (includes Exynos Series 7) Supported on Snapdragon 835-class onwards (Includes Exynos Series 9)
    iOS Supported on iOS 11 Not Supported


There are 2 opposite perspectives here, and one of them is more important than everything else. To start with, we have the PayTV STBs. Here, you don’t see VP9. However, all 4K content is today based on H.265, no exceptions. there are two main reasons for this:

  • H.265 came faster to the market, even ignoring VP9 spec is still a draft…
  • H.265 offers the best quality for the bit.

What is important on the STB side, is not on the broadcasting world, but on the OTT world instead. As the broadcasters have complete dominium on the STB, it means they decide which codecs to focus on, and pay royalties on. It’s not enough to say that VP9 is “patent free”, which isn’t, or that it is free, but supporting VP9 from both the software and the silicon has a cost, meaning man-hours to create the software drivers and tools to optimize it, and chipset silicon to do the actual work.


On the other hand, for the likes of Netflix and Hulu, what matters most is the best quality of the bit. A better codec means less bandwidth cost, less storage cost, better quality for the same bitrate profiles. Then, neither Netflix nor Hulu have royalties to care about, as those are paid by the STB manufacturer, broadcaster, user, whatever…

The least concerning aspect is the browser. The browser is not really relevant anymore. To start with, it can easily adapt. Given proper hardware support, it’s easy to take advantage of the OS drivers tapping the hardware to decode H.265 or VP9. On the other hand, not having hardware support makes it irrelevant, as neither codec is really effective if decided on software. At the end, we need to look at the big picture, content is not not consumed on the browser any more, with the sole exception of Youtube.

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