The feud is over. The codec war… has ended. It’s 2020 and me, you, we — all of us! — can finally watch 4K YouTube on the iPhone, iPad, and Apple TV. Finally.
Now, if you just want the answer to the problem and why it still may take a while for you to get, just use the chapter markers to jump ahead.
If you want to know who screwed up and made it such a big problem to begin with, well, just you buckle up. Because this is some high-order tech drama.
So, up until now, you just couldn’t watch 4K YouTube on any Apple device.
iTunes and Apple TV+, fine. Netflix and Disney+, no problem. Vimeo, go for it. Literally any other service, but not YouTube.
And you could watch 4K YouTube on literally any other ‘droid or Fire or streaming or casting device in the verse, just not Apple’s.
Well, almost. Chrome on the Mac was the one exception that really made the rule super beyond frustrating.
And the reason for this… is Google. But maybe not the fault. At least entirely.
See, for 720p and 1080p, what’s commonly called HD, pretty much everyone in the industry agreed to support the same standard codec — H.264.
When it came time for 2160p, or the resolutions grouped together as 4K or UHD, pretty much everyone in the industry address to support the same standard codec again — this time H.265. Also known by one of the world’s worst acronyms, HEVC or high efficiency video codec.
Except for — you guessed it — Google.
For YouTube, Google decided to go with it’s own, competing codec — VP9.
Now, because YouTube is such a big deal, a lot of other software and hardware platforms decided to just take it in the apps – I said apps! — and add in VP9 support just for YouTube.
Apple, being Apple, did not.
And so all their shared customers, all of us who just wanted to watch YouTube on Apple devices, ended up being screwed, yeah, right in those apps.
So, if you want to tell me who you blame, just do it in the comments below.
Google’s problem with H.265 — and H.264 before it — is that its a standard but not a free or open one. It’s owned by MPEG-LA, and they’ve historically been kinda super greedy about the royalties and licenses they charge for it. Although they have been pressured down over time. A lot.
With H.264 almost everyone, including Google, just grit their teeth and took it. That’s why you could play 720p and 1080p YouTube in H.264 in pretty much any player on pretty much any device.
Except… except some free and open source software. They either couldn’t financially or simply wouldn’t philosophically support a licensed, royalty-based codec.
So, Google made an alternative, which back in the HD days, was VP8.
Now, free and open source alternatives to licensed and royalty based codecs are great. They’re terrific. At least in theory.
In practice, just because someone says their new codec is free and open source, doesn’t magically make it so. Even a company as big and bad as Google.
Patents are legal minefields, expect where the mines teleport around randomly and all you have to do is get a jury in the rocket docket to say one exploded, and you’re looking at 10s or 100s of millions of dollars in damages and penalties, if not more.
Remember Steve Jobs saying FaceTime was going to be an open standard back in 2020? Yeah, Apple’s been fighting patent suits over that pretty much ever since.
So, Apple, which has more money than some countries, would rather just pay the license and royalties in this case than risk being sued over the supposed free and open alternative.
The codec wars
When we started moving from HD to UHD, and from SDR to HDR — Stand to High Dynamic Range —and the file sizes threatened to become four times the size, we needed a better, smaller, more efficient way to compress them.
So, after a complex and borderline nightmarish set of patent pooling agreements H.265 — HEVC — was announced as the next generation replacement for ubiquitously used H.264.
Google, meanwhile, developed VP9 as the replacement for their own, then seldom used, VP8
And because, by then, they weren’t just YouTube anymore, but YouTube dammit, they decided to tell H.265 to just jog on and use their own VP9 instead.
So, yeah — begun these codec wars had.
Now, some people will tell you HEVC is also technically better than VP9, and others will of course argue that no, VP9 is actually technically better than HEVC, and they’ll all shake their tiny Vader fists at each other on every subreddit they can.
Since Google has it’s own ecosystem, it was trivial to build VP9 support into Android and Chrome, which is why 4K YouTube worked in Chrome on the Mac.
Because YouTube is YouTube, it also wasn’t hard to get companies who felt they really needed YouTube in 4K, like Roku and Amazon, even other browsers on the Mac, to add support for it as well.
But, again, Apple is Apple.
They’d already created custom HEVC encode and decode blocks to both their A-series chips for iPhone and iPad and T2 chip for the Mac.
That meant, not only would HEVC play back incredibly smoothly on Apple devices, it would do so without any software overhead, excessive heat, or battery drain.
Something they were really proud of and saw as adding significant value to their products… and something that just simply would not be the case with VP9.
And if you’re thinking, well, Apple could just add VP9 encode and decode blocks to the silicon as well…
One, that takes years, and two, it’s not entirely clear how workable that really is.
Here’s why — Google supports VP9 and only VP9 playback for their video service, YouTube, but they only support H.265 — yes, only HEVC — for 4K capture on their current generation phones, the Pixel 4.
Because… hardware encoders are hard.
So, that where we’ve been for the last few years. Apple not supporting VP9 and Google… er… YouTube not supporting H.265.
At WWDC 2020, Apple announced iOS 14 and tvOS 14. They spent a bunch of time showing off widgets on the Home screen and even Control Center on the big screen, but what they spent zero time on was 4K support for YouTube on all their screens.
No, that little gem was tucked away at the bottom of the Apple TV 4K page on Apple.com.
But it was there:
Watch the latest YouTube videos in their full 4K glory. Your favorite music, slo‑mo, outdoor, and vlog footage never looked better.
So, what happened? Did YouTube decide to re-encode their massive video library in H.265 for silky smooth playback on all of Apple’s devices?
Did both Google and Apple decide to switch to the new Alliance for Open Media Video 1 codec — or AV1.
Also no. At least not yet. If that beautiful dream for a unified codec future is to come true, and not be bifurcated again by competing H.266, it will not be this day.
Apple seems to have added software support for VP9 to tvOS 14. And maybe iOS 14 and iPadOS 14 as well.
Weirdly, because everything about this apparently has to be just so weird, it’s not showing up for everyone on the beta versions yet.
Some people now have the option on all their devices, some on a few but not all their devices, and others on none of their devices.
So, it’s possible Google is rolling it out to those devices in stages, or Apple is testing it on some installations, or some cooperative combination of the two.
It’s also possible 4K YouTube showing up on iOS 14 and iPadOS 14 is just a bug from the tvOS 14 rollout and it still won’t be there come the fall.
Because increased heat and battery drain won’t be an issue on an Apple TV 4K box plugged into AC power, but it will be for an iPhone or iPad on battery.
Likewise, Apple TV 4K really benefits from 4K video where the iPhone does not, and neither do almost an of the iPads.
I mean, yes, some of us have said we’d give anything for 4K YouTube on our iPhones and iPads. But that anything is always theoretical. When it becomes practical, and touches battery life, you know it, we’ll cut you.
Since I’d rather be surprised than disappointed, I’m only going to expect it on tvOS 14. But, hopefully that’s something the big brains at Google and Apple are busy figuring it out right now.