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H.264 and AAC support coming in Silverlight

So, our big IBC press announcement went out this morning. Lots of blog-worthy stuff in there, but as a compression nerd, it's the codec stuff I'm going to talk about first.

The big news is that, yes, we're going to add support for MPEG-4 to Silverlight, in the version coming after the fast-approaching fall release of Silverlight 2. Specifically, this will be H.264 for video and AAC for audio.

Why?

So, why MPEG-4 support in Silverlight? It's pretty straightforward, really. We have customers with libraries of H.264 content they wanted to publish to Silverlight, but didn't want to reencode to VC-1. Silverlight's strengths go far beyond media playback, and customers wanted the choice to deploy a wide variety of existing content within Silverlight. Silverlight aspires to provide as much choice as feasible as to how Silverlight can be authored and delivered. H.264 support is something we'd considered for past versions, but there were higher priority features we needed to deliver first. Silverlight 2 provides us a very rich base for delivering web apps, so we can start spreading our wings a bit.

What?

We've got more technical details we'll be sharing at IBC and later, but today, I'll just quote the details from Scott Guthrie's interview:

PressPass: Will you be showing or announcing anything new at the IBC conference this week?

Guthrie: Yes. At IBC 2008 we will be demonstrating a technology preview of H.264 video and Advanced Audio Coding (AAC) audio playback support in Silverlight, and H.264 authoring using Microsoft Expression Encoder and Windows Server 2008 for delivery. Until now, Silverlight has supported the SMPTE VC-1 and Windows Media formats, as well as MP3 for audio, enabling customers to take advantage of broad support across the Windows Media ecosystem, including third-party tools, service providers and content delivery networks.

We’ve always wanted Silverlight to support a variety of formats, so today we’re announcing that H.264 and AAC support will be available in a future version of Silverlight, which will offer content owners greater flexibility and choice to deliver video and audio.

PressPass: Historically, people have associated Microsoft with VC-1. Does this signal a change in direction?

Guthrie: No. Although we have been working with VC-1 for some time, it’s not widely recognized that Microsoft has also been an active participant in the standardization of H.264/MPEG AVC for many years, and we’ve included H.264 support in several Microsoft products. Microsoft’s Gary Sullivan was the chairman of the Joint Video Team (JVT), which developed the H.264 standard, and he recently accepted an Emmy Award on behalf of the JVT.

PressPass: Does this mean that Silverlight is moving away from Windows Media?

Guthrie: Not at all. This is about offering our customers more choice. Media producers and distributors around the world have enjoyed the high quality, flexibility and affordability of Windows Media formats for over a decade. As a testament to its pervasiveness, Windows Media can be found in almost every conceivable media scenario from desktop home video to feature films and TV broadcasts.

Again, don't read this as as a big change around our strategy for media formats. We've long-supported WMV and MPEG-4 side-by-side in products like Xbox and Zune. As I posted last week, Microsoft has been contributing to H.264 since its inception.

This doesn't represent any change in our support for Windows Media. Windows Media continues to work well for today's Silverlight customers. I expect (not a goal, just a prediction) that the majority of Silverlight content will remain in WMV well after we release MPEG-4 support.

In particular, VC-1 will likely remain the codec of choice for HD for some time. Comparing VC-1 Advanced Profile to H.264 High Profile with all the bells and whistles turned on, VC-1 only needs about half as many MIPS per pixel for playback. This won't matter as much for lower resolution content, or podcasting stuff that's in the simpler Baseline profile, but makes for a big reduction in system requirements for 720p and higher.

Where/When can I learn more?

If you're at IBC, swing by! If you want a head start on using MPEG-4 in Silverlight, feel free contact me directly. And we'll have plenty of more technical info to share down the road a bit.

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