Standardizing WM9

At the recent SMPTE Technical Conference and Exhibition in New York, I became the target of a lobbying campaign both for and against the standardization of Microsoft’s Windows Media 9 by SMPTE. The reason for my being in the sights of both camps: not only am I a trade magazine editor, I’ve got an engineering background, so I can understand the technologies and processes involved.

No one issue has so divided the SMPTE membership, whether publicly or privately. The problem is that this issue has become almost religious in nature. Whether people are anti- or pro-Microsoft, or anti- or pro-H.264—a.k.a. MPEG-4 Part 10, or MPEG-4 Advanced Video Coding (AVC), most do not understand the process of SMPTE standardization and what it means. Religious zealots tend to forget the facts and deal with raw emotion (they’re right, you’re wrong, so go to hell).

SMPTE standardization is not about developing standards, adopting standards or whether WM9 is better than H.264; it’s about procedure. SMPTE, as a standards-setting body, doesn’t care if WM9 is better or worse than H.264 and doesn’t care that it was submitted by Microsoft. What SMPTE does care about, according to SMPTE engineering vice president Peter Symes, are the “Nine Commandments,” a list of nine criteria that all SMPTE Engineering documents must meet:
1: Potential for broad use.
2: No conflicts with other accepted documents.
3: Must be in the public interest.
4: Fairness.
5: Technical adequacy.
6: Industry concern and lack of proprietary information (exceptions allowed).
7: Test methods.
8: Style and format.
9: Only content essential for satisfactory operation.

Those Nine Commandments don’t seem to matter as a standardization criteria to many, mainly those whose interests lie in H.264. Some of those would be the essential patent holders of H.244 which, according to licensing authority MPEG LA, include Columbia University, the Electronics and Telecommunications Research Institute of Korea (ETRI), France Télécom, Fujitsu, Matsushita, Mitsubishi, Microsoft, Motorola, Nokia, Philips, Polycom, Robert Bosch GmbH, Samsung, Sharp, Sony, Thomson, Toshiba, and Victor Company of Japan (JVC).

Yes, Microsoft has a vested interest in H.264, especially with the desire of the rights holders to charge use fees. But they obviously have a bigger stake in WM9.

WM9 has been used to compress high definition movies on standard DVDs. In January, Samsung will have a DVD player capable of decoding regular and HD WM9 DVDs, and WM9 is under consideration, as is H.264, for selection as the video codec for the ATSC’s E-VSB. WM9 has become a professional video tool.
And SMPTE’s roll in all of this? The only time SMPTE can refuse a request for standardization, is if the work is outside SMPTE’s scope or if any of the Nine Commandments cannot be met. While some do believe that the work of standardizing WM9 is beyond SMPTE’s scope and can argue that in committee meetings, it is up to SMPTE to decide if the work is indeed within their scope.

The Arguments

The business arguments against WM9 (as well as those for WM9) exist. Some are valid. Yes, WM9 is a 4:2:0 system. If that’s not good enough for you, then you don’t have to use it.

Yes, WM9 might be based on other intellectual property. To address this, Pat Griffis, Microsoft’s director of worldwide media standards (and the person who spearheaded Microsoft’s decision to approach SMPTE) explains that in the documentation presented to SMPTE, that there is a call for those who think that WM9 infringes on their rights to contact them.

Another argument is that Microsoft might charge more in licensing fees for one group than another. If Microsoft were to do that, they would violate SMPTE’s Intellectual Property Policy, which states that “a license will be made available to all applications at reasonable rates, with reasonable terms and conditions that are demonstrably free of any unfair discrimination.”

How long will the process take? According to Symes, simple technologies can take six months, but more complex technologies or those with many objections can take up to four years. The best guess from industry experts for WM9...1-1/2 to 2-1/2 years.

That might shock those in the computer industry, but according to both Symes and Griffis, the syntax of WM9 is locked.

Will SMPTE standardize WM9? Most likely yes. Does that mean the industry must use WM9? Absolutely not.

SMPTE Administrative Practices Section XIII, Engineering