YouTube’s New Year Resolution: Kill The Spinning Wheel of Death, And The H.264 Codec

Google’s 4K video codec will let viewers stream high-definition videos at half the bandwidth.

YouTube’s New Year Resolution: Kill The Spinning Wheel of Death, And The H.264 Codec
[Image: Flickr user Danndalf]

People all over the world are celebrating the start of 2014 by pledging to lose weight, quit smoking, and spend less time waiting for YouTube videos to play.


Okay, that last one is mostly Google’s resolution. Today, the company announced that it will transition to a new video codec, dubbed VP9, which will reduce the size of streaming video files and thus deliver the latest episode of PewDiePie even more efficiently than ever before.

“You’ve faced the spinning wheel of death,” global director of platform partnerships Francisco Varela tells Fast Company. “As people watch more and more YouTube every day, our job is to make it work more quickly, more easily.”

Varela says there are two approaches to improve the streaming experience. If you think of data as water going through pipes (let’s just play along for a minute), there are two ways to speed the flow: increase the size of the pipes or improve the flow of water. The former is out of Google’s control and up to the Internet providers themselves, so YouTube decided to go with the latter.

Codecs are essentially containers for video files, helping shrink their footprint until a decoder unwraps the package. The VP9 codec, which was developed by Google, is able deliver video at about the same quality as its predecessors while halving its size. That means less …buffering as you stream. The VP9 codec was finished this past summer, but now YouTube is deploying it widely in hopes of gaining mass adoption.

Google isn’t in this just to make your viewing experience better, of course, the codec is also part of an ongoing quest to unburden video distributors from paying royalties. The current most widely used codec, H.264, includes technology patented by a number of different companies and can require the payment of hefty licensing fees in some cases. You don’t have to dig deep into a video tech discussion thread to find a debate over just who has rights to what part of those video patents, whether or not Google alone can make VP9 the new standard in streaming playback, and the technical image quality of the codec versus its predecessors.

At CES next week, conference goers will get to see just how well YouTube’s videos look on several shiny new TVs. Among partners demonstrating 4K videos streamed from YouTube are LG, Panasonic, and Sony. Those VP9-compatible sets are expected to hit the market in 2015. Varela says new uploads will be automatically supported, and existing videos will be re-encoded beginning in 2014.

“A massive incredible goal for 2015 is that you’d be surprised if you see that [spinning wheel],” he says.

About the author

Based in San Francisco, Alice Truong is Fast Company's West Coast correspondent. She previously reported in Chicago, Washington D.C., New York and most recently Hong Kong, where she (left her heart and) worked as a reporter for the Wall Street Journal.