YouTube goes 4K, Google signs up long list of hardware partners for VP9 support

YouTube(S GOOG) will be demonstrating 4K video at CES in Las Vegas next week, with a twist: The Google-owned video service will be showing off ultra high-definition streaming based on VP9, a new royalty-free codec that Google has been developing as an alternative to the H.265 video codec that’s at the core of many other 4K implementations.

This isn’t the first time Google has tried to establish an open and royalty-free alternative to a commercial video format. Google’s VP8 video codec, which the company released in 2010, was supposed to become the default format for plugin-free video streaming and real-time communications, but those plans were thwarted by a lack of hardware support and fierce opposition from some companies with vested interest in established commercial video formats.

This time around, Google has lined up a whole list of hardware partners to kickstart VP9 deployment. YouTube will show off 4K streaming at the booths of LG, Panasonic and Sony(S SNE). And on Thursday, YouTube released a list of 19 hardware partners that have pledged to support VP9, including chipset vendors like ARM(S ARMH), Intel(S INTC), Broadcom(S BRCM) and Marvell(S MRVL) as well as consumer electronics heavyweights like Samsung, Sharp and Toshiba.

However, Francisco Varela, global director of platform partnerships at YouTube, didn’t want to frame YouTube’s use of VP9 as an either-or decision in a recent interview. “This certainly isn’t a war of the video codecs,” he said. Varela added that this was just a first announcement around 4K for YouTube, leaving open the possibility that YouTube could add H.265 support as well.

Instead, he emphasized how the use of the codec won’t just help YouTube to deliver higher resolutions at reasonable bitrates, but also reduce the amount of data necessary to stream regular HD videos by about half. This will help YouTube to improve video delivery and do away with buffering, said Varela: “By 2015, you’ll be surprised every time you see that spinning wheel.”

Varela said that he expects VP9 hardware decoding to come to PCs and mobile devices first, and that first TVs supporting the format should ship by 2015. This would not just benefit YouTube, but also other video services that are looking to deliver their streams more efficiently. “This is important for the entire ecosystem,” he said.