October 4, 2001 5:55 PM PDT

Tech giants push MPEG-4 standard

A standards body comprising such tech heavyweights as Apple Computer and Cisco Systems has released a specification for streaming MPEG-4 video and audio via the Web.

The Internet Streaming Media Alliance (ISMA) announced this week that it has developed and published its first specification. ISMA 1.0 will let consumers install one plug-in for streaming audio and video, rather than a raft of programs each specific to a single format, on devices ranging from cell phones to personal computers.

For ISMA, the specification is the latest effort to create open standards in streaming media. Microsoft's Windows Media, RealNetworks' RealPlayer and Apple's QuickTime each hold a piece of the market. Although Apple joined Cisco, IBM, Kasenna, Philips Electronics, Sun Microsystems and other tech companies in founding the nonprofit group last year, market leaders RealNetworks and Microsoft have yet to join.

"For streaming to be really broadly embraced, broadly accepted, both on the PC as well as the non-PC platform by the content industry and by the consumer, what needs to take place is the creation of an open standard," said Hans-Peter Baumeister, a board member of the ISMA and vice president of strategic alliances at Philips.

MPEG-4 is the successor of MPEG-1 and MPEG-2, technologies behind the MP3 audio explosion. Like its predecessors, MPEG-4 comprises audio and video technologies that condense large digital files into smaller ones that can be easily transferred via the Web.

ISMA hopes MPEG-4 will eventually replace the MP3 audio format, which inadvertently became a household name through the popularity of file-swapping service Napster. But the new format's video applications and interactive features have drawn the most interest so far.

ISMA 1.0 has two versions. Profile 0 helps wireless and narrowband networks stream audio and video content to devices, such as cell phones or PDAs (personal digital assistants), for limited viewing and listening. Profile 1 is devised for broadband networks and targeted to more powerful devices such as set-top boxes and personal computers.

Apple is hoping the standard will help its QuickTime, which trails Windows Media and RealPlayer, gain popularity. The computer maker is expected to release a new version of QuickTime based on the MPEG-4 format.


Gartner analyst Robert Batchelder says that while Microsoft may be touting its own offering, the world needs only one video-compression standard, and MPEG-4 is it.

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According to Nielsen/NetRatings, RealNetworks in August held first place in media format usage at work and at home. The research firm said 28.8 million people at home and 15.5 million at work used RealPlayer. Windows Media had 13 million consumers at home and 8.8 million at work. QuickTime attracted 8.2 million consumers at home and 5.3 million at work.

According to Baumeister, ISMA 1.0 could shorten these gaps by freeing content creators and distributors from depending on a single vendor for streaming media technology. Without an overarching standard, companies must choose one format or encode the same audio and video for several players. With ISMA 1.0, he said, companies would only need to encode the content once to stream it over all compliant players.

Microsoft, however, says it is unimpressed with the quality and application of MPEG-4; rather than join ISMA, the software giant has chosen to focus on an upgrade of its own technology.

"Windows Media 8 can actually deliver near-DVD-video experience and save about 40 percent of the bandwidth over what MPEG-4 can do," said Michael Aldridge, lead product manager of the Windows Media Digital Division at Microsoft. "Bandwidth savings impact the cost of media delivery, and (it) really is the key determinant on whether there is business viability to deliver video across the Web."

RealNetworks could not be immediately reached for comment.

 

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