Crunch time for MPEG-4 standard

Oct 29, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Its name has a familiar ring, and it takes 1,000 pages to detail its many abilities. That combination of familiarity and facility has backers hoping MPEG-4 will become streaming media’s Swiss Army knife, more ubiquitous than even its popular predecessors, which compress and decompress video on television and DVDs.
But MPEG-4 would go much further than MPEG-1 and MPEG-2. Its most compelling talent is scalability-its ability to crunch video into a single stream that runs on everything from tiny cellphone screens to high-quality digital cinema equipment. MPEG-4 would eliminate the expensive headache of repeatedly re-encoding video to optimize it for various platforms.
MPEG-4’s specs include an array of security and back-end services and intriguing abilities that could transform interactive TV, such as the way it treats video, text, animation and audio as “objects” that can be layered together onscreen from different sources.
The problem? Crafting consensus through the Moving Pictures Experts Group standard-setting body on such a massive set of technologies has taken eight years. And standing astride MPEG-4’s path to widespread adoption are RealNetworks and Microsoft Corp., which together claim more than 90 percent of the Internet streaming media market and are moving into wireless and other businesses. Can the slow-footed MPEG-4 keep up?
“MPEG-4 is looking at life beyond the TV,” said Sun Microsystems’ Tom Jacobs, president of the Internet Streaming Media Alliance, whose dozens of companies back the standard.
Tech-savvy executives at Hollywood companies such as Sony, Warner Bros. and Carsey-Werner-Mandabach like MPEG-4 because it’s an open standard.
“If anything happens to Real and Microsoft, we want to have options,” said Warner Bros. Senior VP Kevin Tsujihara. “We always want as many distribution channels for our content as possible. We don’t want to be limited, because you always run the risk of creating another gatekeeper.”
“Gatekeeper” means another Blockbuster or MTV, companies that have reaped billions off Hollywood’s content because they dominate a distribution medium. Both Microsoft and RealNetworks would love that dominating position on the Net and other digital distribution channels. And both say their own codecs, as compression/decompression algorithms are called, far outstrip MPEG-4 quality.
Their cause has been helped by MPEG-4’s slow development, which has kept customers from confidently embracing the technology.
“My impression is that it’s a lot further along in the press than it is in customer adoption,” said Dave Girouard, senior VP of products, service and strategy for Virage. The company’s clients can choose to stream their content through the Virage platform using MPEG-4, Real or Microsoft codecs, but “Whenever we’re doing Web streaming stuff, it is invariably the classic battle between Real and Microsoft.”
That may be changing soon. MPEG-4 backers say the competition that an open standard allows should quickly lead to better-looking pictures on screen.
So is MPEG-4 finally ready? Just about, its backers say. And the future is promising.
“It’s probably too broad,” acknowledged Jordan Greenhall, chairman and CEO, DivXNetworks. “The flip side is that it’s really good. You can go in and pull all kinds of great applications out of it. And as long as you stay within the boundaries of the standard, you’re massively future-proofed.”#