The intent of the H.264/AVC project was to create a standard capable of providing good video quality at substantially lower bit rates than previous standards (e.g. half or less the bit rate of MPEG-2, H.263, or MPEG-4 Part 2), without increasing the complexity of design so much that it would be impractical or excessively expensive to implement. An additional goal was to provide enough flexibility to allow the standard to be applied to a wide variety of applications on a wide variety of networks and systems, including low and high bit rates, low and high resolution video, broadcast, DVD storage, RTP/IP packet networks, and ITU-T multimedia telephony systems.
The H.264 standard is a "family of standards", the members of which are the profiles described below. A specific decoder decodes at least one, but not necessarily all, profiles. The decoder specification describes which of the profiles can be decoded.
The standardization of the first version of H.264/AVC was completed in May 2003. The JVT then developed extensions to the original standard that are known as the Fidelity Range Extensions (FRExt). These extensions enable higher quality video coding by supporting increased sample bit depth precision and higher-resolution color information, including sampling structures known as YUV 4:2:2 and YUV 4:4:4. Several other features are also included in the Fidelity Range Extensions project, such as adaptive switching between 4 *4 and 8 *8 integer transforms, encoder-specified perceptual-based quantization weighting matrices, efficient inter-picture lossless coding, and support of additional color spaces. The design work on the Fidelity Range Extensions was completed in July 2004, and the drafting work on them was completed in September 2004.
Further recent extensions of the standard have included adding five new profiles intended primarily for professional applications, adding extended-gamut color space support, defining additional aspect ratio indicators, defining two additional types of "supplemental enhancement information" (post-filter hint and tone mapping), and deprecating one of the prior FRExt profiles that industry feedback indicated should have been designed differently.
Scalable Video Coding as specified in Annex G of H.264/AVC allows the construction of bitstreams that contain sub-bitstreams that conform to H.264/AVC. For temporal bitstream scalability, i.e., the presence of a sub-bitstream with a smaller temporal sampling rate than the bitstream, complete access units are removed from the bitstream when deriving the sub-bitstream. In this case, high-level syntax and inter prediction reference pictures in the bitstream are constructed accordingly. For spatial and quality bitstream scalability, i.e. the presence of a sub-bitstream with lower spatial resolution or quality than the bitstream, NAL (Network Abstraction Layer) removed from the bitstream when deriving the sub-bitstream. In this case, inter-layer prediction, i.e., the prediction of the higher spatial resolution or quality signal by data of the lower spatial resolution or quality signal, is typically used for efficient coding. The Scalable Video Coding extension was completed in November 2007.
The H.264 name follows the ITU-T naming convention, where the standard is a member of the H.26x line of VCEG video coding standards; the MPEG-4 AVC name relates to the naming convention in ISO/IEC MPEG, where the standard is part 10 of ISO/IEC 14496, which is the suite of standards known as MPEG-4. The standard was developed jointly in a partnership of VCEG and MPEG, after earlier development work in the ITU-T as a VCEG project called H.26L. It is thus common to refer to the standard with names such as H.264/AVC, AVC/H.264, H.264/MPEG-4 AVC, or MPEG-4/H.264 AVC, to emphasize the common heritage. The name H.26L, referring to its ITU-T history, is less common, but still used. Occasionally, it is also referred to as "the JVT codec", in reference to the Joint Video Team (JVT) organization that developed it. (Such partnership and multiple naming is not uncommon-for example, the video codec standard known as MPEG-2 also arose from the partnership between MPEG and the ITU-T, where MPEG-2 video is known to the ITU-T community as H.262.)