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MPEG-4 Comes On Strong

The close of 2001 brought an announcement by RealNetworks that future versions of its encoding and client software will support MPEG-4, the next-generation standard already endorsed by a host of high-tech companies. This shift surprised most in the industry because conventional wisdom held that Real, like Microsoft, would maintain a proprietary stance with its technology. The thinking was that supporting an open standard promoted by lesser competitors might compromise market dominance.

Microsoft, which once backed MPEG-4 but then changed to its solitary course, apparently is sticking with that approach. But Real, as it turned out, thought otherwise. Furthermore, the digital winds already were blowing toward standards. A November survey by Streaming Media, Inc. found that 65 percent of respondents expected MPEG-4 to become the streaming standard within three years.

Real now espouses that MPEG-4 is a win-win situation. Broadcasters and IP network operators who want to take advantage of MPEG-4âs superior audio and video capabilities may now do so without straying from the Real family fold. What makes MPEG-4 so enticing? It promises to deliver higher-quality audio and video while requiring less bandwidth. So even those users with dial-up Internet connections will stand a better chance of seeing and hearing an uninterrupted stream. MPEG-4 also simplifies things for consumers. In most cases, things that work well and are simple to use gain wider acceptance than things that work well but are complicated to use. More on this in a moment.

Last fall, the Internet Streaming Media Alliance (IMSA) adopted a specification for an open standard based on MPEG-4, the latest compression technology developed by the Motion Picture Expert Group of the International Standards Organization. (The roots of MPEG-4 can be traced to Apple's QuickTime, from which the format was adopted.) The IMSA 1.0 specification encompasses the usual broadband world, but also has guidelines for streaming to devices such as cell phones and handheld PDAs.

The prospect of streaming via the Real brand to everyone holding a Nokia surely must have helped change minds at Real Networks' Seattle headquarters.

Susan Kevorkian, an analyst who follows MPEG-4 for the market intelligence firm IDC, said she was not surprised by Real's decision. The company, which pioneered streaming over the Internet, has been emphasizing its subscription-based consumer services while maintaining server technologies for content providers. "They need to compete with Windows Media technologies,ä Kevorkian said, and adopting MPEG-4 "is one more way for them to do that."

One benefit of MPEG-4's open standards is interoperability. In plain language, that means consumers won't necessarily be tied to a proprietary streaming media player. So long as the player is MPEG-4 compliant, it should (theoretically) play an MPEG-4 stream. That means users of RealPlayer will one day be able to watch QuickTime movie trailers on Appleâs website. And QuickTime users can tune into the Real streams from

For television stations with limited resources to devote to streaming, MPEG-4 holds special value. Today, broadcasters must encode in each of the three proprietary formats (Real, Windows Media, and QuickTime) to serve the entire audience. MPEG-4 brings the efficiency of eliminating one format. RealNetworks and Apple both claim advantages to their technologies, so broadcasters will have to decide which is best for them. But making the choice wonât shut out a particular segment of the audience that prefers one player over another.

"MPEG-4 is definitely an advantage for content providers, whose audience is automatically broadened," said Kevorkian. "And it's a boon for consumers who don't necessarily have to negotiate multiple players."

So it seems that MPEG-4 has gained substantial momentum now that Real has come to the party. Will Microsoft crash it? Opinions differ. Robert Batchelder, an analyst for the technology consulting firm Gartner, wrote in October that "companies that rely primarily on proprietary compression formats will ultimately fall out of the mainstream. For all but the most demanding applications, the world needs only one compression format, and MPEG-4 is it."

IDC's Kevorkian thinks Microsoft will continue to go its own way. (At press time, Microsoft had not responded to inquiries about MPEG-4.) "I think Microsoft's Windows Media Technologies will persist," she said. "Microsoft isn't going away." Got A Favorite?