Apple Makes Play for Video’s Future at WWDC 2017

The big news out of Apple’s recent developers conference wasn’t the new, more powerful iMac Pro or refreshed Macbooks. It was the news that Apple was embracing HEVC compression across its product lines. (OK, it was big news if you’re a video compression junky!)

Apple threw both of its arms around HEVC at its World Wide Developers Conference (WWDC). The new Mac OS, High Sierra, will support the codec, as will iOS 11. Apple is also adding support for the High Efficiency Image File Format (HEIF) for still image compression across its mobile and desktop platforms.

Apple is positioning HEVC as a way for consumers to stream 4K videos more efficiently, as well as free up space on the notoriously stingy allotments of internal memory on the iPhone. This latter rationale raises an interesting question. Will HEVC pinch Apple’s profits?

It’s a barely-disguised secret that Apple has managed to leverage the meager increment of internal memory in its opening price point iPhones to drive lucrative, high-margin, step-up sales to higher memory capacity iPhones. (Apple’s famous reluctance to adopt removable memory cards—ostensibly in the service of its high-minded design principles—has also abetted this strategy.) Embracing HEVC, which could shave video file sizes in half, and HEIF, which will shrink still images and Live Photos, could make entry-level iPhones more attractive.

Beyond embracing HEVC, Apple also signaled its intention to improve GPU performance across its Mac hardware. This is important because many of today’s professional photo and video editing tools are increasingly tapping into GPUs to offload processing workloads normally heaped onto CPUs. For content creators working with virtual reality footage, powerful GPU processing is critical. (It’s also critical for applications that leverage machine learning.)

For Mac owners with Thunderbolt 3 connections, a new(ish) class of computer accessory—external GPU units—will add extra GPU horsepower simply by plugging in a cable, much like external hard drives add extra storage capacity.

Apple has work to do to win back professional video producers, many of whom jumped shipped after the introduction of the Mac Pro in 2013, which was unable to handle the larger, heat-generating GPU chips that these pros needed. The forthcoming iMac Pro and improvements to Apple’s Metal architecture are designed to woo these users back into the Apple fold.