Deeper Dive—Why Netflix running AV1 on Android is a big deal

Netflix corporate headquarters
Netflix support for AV1 on iOS devices will be more complicated. (Netflix)

Netflix quietly revealed last week that it has begun streaming AV1 encoded content through its app for Android mobile devices. It’s a big deal for the emerging compression standard.

Netflix is offering AV1 streaming on mobile because it believes the heightened compression is a good fit for mobile networks, which can be temperamental when it comes to bandwidth and reliability. For now, only select titles are available to stream in AV1 for customers who wish to reduce their cellular data usage by enabling the “Save Data” feature.

AV1, or AOMedia Video Codec 1.0, is an open source royalty-free video codec that was developed by the Alliance for Open Media, which counts Amazon, Facebook, Google, Intel, Microsoft and Netflix among its founding members. AV1 was designed to better handle higher resolution video and can provide high-quality video at bit rates about 50% less than H.264 (HEVC).

Netflix said it eventually wants to run out AV1 to all its platforms, and the company said it’s working with device and chipset partners on extending the codec into hardware. The company is also open-sourcing its effort to optimize 10-bit color performance in the dav1d decoder that it’s using to support AV1 on Android.

It was likely inevitable that Netflix would roll out AV1. Still, the move was cheered by fellow AV1 proponents.

There’s still work to do for Netflix and AOMedia. The company said it’s seeing 20% improved compression efficiency over VP9, but AV1 originally promised 30%. However, demand is ramping up now.

Rethink Research’s Thomas Flanagan pointed toward Bitmovin’s third annual developer survey, which suggested that one in five developers plan to implement AV1 this year and that companies including Cisco, Mozilla and YouTube are scaling up their use of the technology.

“…AV1 is well positioned to compete with H.265/HEVC and to succeed VP9 for open-source use cases in 2020,” wrote Flanagan in a research report, adding that device makers and streaming providers now have a full set of tools for building AV1-compliant products and services.

As for when Netflix AV1 support will reach Apple iOS devices, Flanagan said the process is complicated by Apple’s involvement with MPEG-LA, one of the key HEVC patent pools, that has argued against AV1. However, Apple is also a founding member of AOMedia.

As AV1 progressed toward critical mass, Flanagan said MPEG/ITU supporters have reason to be concerned considering how HEVC patents have split into three pools (MPEG-LA, HEVC Advance and Velos Media), which he said presents a “confusing and risky picture for potential users. This has given oxygen to the AV1 movement far more than arguable and sometimes spurious claims of performance gains over HEVC.”