Microsoft hits rough road to standardization of VC-1

Microsoft’s effort to control audio and video applications for consumer electronics, movies and TV broadcasting worldwide by proposing its proprietary Windows Media Video 9 to the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE) as an industry-standard codec has hit roadblocks to standardization, reports the engineering publication EE Times.

Indeed, the process, which began last year, appears bogged down by infighting and general distrust, with no clear sign of when VC-1 — the SMPTE standard based on WMV9 — will reach fruition.

It certainly didn’t within the time frame outlined by Microsoft executives, who predicted at the time of its submission to SMPTE in September 2003, that WMV9 would be an SMPTE standard within six to 12 months.

A number of technical and political issues surrounding VC-1 have reportedly caused growing frustration and constant bickering in the SMPTE engineering community, EE Times said. In addition, licensing issues loom large, and some fear that royalties may prove too expensive for the SMPTE codec to be usable.

The uncertainty has raised questions about the future of Microsoft’s Windows Media Video codec. On the assumption that WMV9 was destined to become an industry standard, Microsoft convinced both the Blu-ray Disc Association and the DVD Forum to include it as a mandatory video compression format (along with MPEG-2 and H.264/MPEG-4 AVC) for next-generation high-definition DVD formats. Now, there is speculation that delays or licensing problems for VC-1 could prompt either — or both — of the DVD industry groups to simply delete the Microsoft technology from their specifications, the article said.

Others believe that political infighting might make VC-1 a short-lived, interim industry standard that eventually gives way to H.264/MPEG-4 AVC. That specification is an open video compression standard jointly developed by the International Telecommunication Union and MPEG members.

Multiple sources close to the SMPTE process told the publication that Microsoft created the impression in the industry that its WMV9 codec had a leg up on H.264/MPEG-4 AVC in quality and licensing terms. But now that the WMV9-based VC-1 has been put to the test in the arduous SMPTE standardization process, VC-1 is “perceived as behind in quality and behind in licensing terms, compared to H.264/MPEG-4 AVC,” one source said.

Moreover, by passing the WMV9 codec to SMPTE, Microsoft is no longer in control of VC-1 royalties. Those terms and conditions must be agreed upon by the essential-patent holders for VC-1. The MPEG LA licensing agency said there are currently 12 VC-1 holders.

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