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MPEG-2 Is Alive and Well And Living in China

You might not have noticed that it wasn't just Mark Twain who got a premature obit. At least once in your life you probably saw the picture of a beaming Harry S. holding the newspaper headlined "Dewey Defeats Truman."

Good old analog NTSC is supposed to die one second after 11:59:59 p.m. on Dec. 31, 2006 (and, if the FCC had its way, it would be a year earlier than that). Will it?

Hey, go ahead and assume that a dictatorial anti-NTSC regime takes over the United States between now and then and bans analog TV broadcasting. Well, there'd still be something like 300 million NTSC TV sets in the country, perfectly able to be used with cable and satellite. Ban analog cable and satellite outputs, and there'd still be a couple-hundred million VCRs and DVD players with (quasi-) NTSC outputs. It ain't easy to kill a technology, which is why I'm so amused by the reports that MPEG-2 is dead.

Allow me to be among the first million or so to acknowledge that there are more efficient squeezers than MPEG-2. So what? We live in the age of thousand-line HDTV. About a femtosecond after the first NTSC proposed 525-line TV in 1940, there were folks yelling to change it to a thousand lines. Now it's 64 years later, and there's still one whole heck-and-a-half of a lot more 525-line TVs out there than thousand-line TVs- and it's going to stay that way for a good long time.

TWO KINDS 'O FIGURES

That reminds me of something I saw recently (and at my age, it's a thrill to be reminded of anything). There's an association of radio and television manufacturers-it used to be called the "Radio and Television Manufacturers Association." Now it's called the Consumer Electronics Association, which is fair enough on account of there being more consumer electronics than just radios and TVs these days.

Anyhow, CEA releases two kinds of figures. One is the figures for U.S. factory sales to dealers; they get these as reports from their member manufacturers. The other is penetration of U.S. households based on a telephone survey. If they call a thousand people and 980 of them say they own a TV set, that gets listed as 98 percent penetration.

So far, so good. But what I read is that there's a third figure.

CEA has been reporting astonishing increases in the penetration of "digital televisions":

January 2001 - 1%

January 2002 - 2%

January 2003 - 4%

January 2004 - 8%

It's a nice, neat, binary progression. Our Beloved Commish, aka the FCC, proclaims the figure as often as possible as proof that the digital television transition is zipping along apace.

There are two problems with that - methinks I've ranted about one of them before. It's CEA's definition of a "digital television."

It could be something that's capable of receiving broadcast digital television signals, in which case Our Beloved Commish would be right to point to the figures. But it could also be something that not only can't receive digital broadcasts but also has not a single digital circuit in it (not counting the on/off switch)-just the capability (in a non-computer product) to display at least a 480p signal.

As a matter of fact, the vast majority of those "digital televisions" (a bunch more than 80 percent of them) ain't got any capability of receiving digital TV signals. So the 8 percent would be really more like 1 percent, except for the second problem.

The second problem is that, although CEA says its figures for "U.S. Household Penetration of Consumer Electronics Products" are "Based on Telephone Surveys Conducted by CEA," at least one of them ain't. Guess which one. Oh, yes. It's the one for "DTV." Instead, the number is fudged based on the factory-sales figures.

"But, Mario, why don't they report the figure they get from their telephone surveys?"

That's easy. They don't want to be laughed out of Washington.

Their telephone surveys report upwards of one-in-five American households owning a DTV. That would be pretty great news except for one thing. Factories ain't yet cranked out that many products that meet either part of CEA's definition.

What was it that a great, prematurely obituaried American writer said-something about lies, more lies, and statistics? Hey, I just got reminded of something else: China.

A FOURTH WAY?

China, you may recollect, is a big country. It's also highly populous, the most populous place on earth.

While America, Europe, and Japan were battling over ATSC, DVB-T and ISDB-T, China was dropping hints that it might pick a fourth way. Oh, horror! One-and-a-half billion digital TVs not matching anyone's patents - ouch! And it ain't just digital TV.

China might pick a digital-cinema system unlike anyone else's. Or it might choose its own version of DVD.

Let's see. How does it go? Next to myself, I like BVDs? Well, next after DVDs, China likes EVDs-and Taiwan FVDs. Those are the enhanced versatile disks and the finalized versatile disks.

You might think those are mechanisms for avoiding royalties to DVD interests, and you might be right. But that's not all. They also promise HDTV on a DVD-sized disk.

'THERE IS ANOTHERSYSTEM'

Here's where I get back to the death of MPEG-2. Warner Bros. says that, with some compression technology more advanced than MPEG-2, they could maybe stick HDTV onto a red-laser disk.

Lo, and behold (I think that means "Hi, please stay on the line"), there is a more advanced compression technology! It's called the advanced video codec (AVC). It's also called the JVT (joint video team) algorithm. It's called H.264, as well, and it's also called MPEG-4 Part 10. It's probably called a whole bunch more stuff, but, with Our Beloved Commish and Congress in a huff over indecency, I ain't going to reproduce that here.

Some tests show that sometimes AVC beats the pants off of some MPEG-2 codecs, especially if they're somewhat old. But wait! As Colossus told Dr. Forbin, "There is another system."

It's called Windows Media Video 9. The way I hear it, WMV9 is approximately equal to AVC/JVT/H.264/MPEG-4 Part 10/M.O.U.S.E. I'm just kidding about the last five letters, of course. The Mouse made a deal with Microsoft last month to use Windows digital rights management.

But wait! As I just said, Colossus told Dr. Forbin, "There is another system." JPEG2000 surely ain't MPEG-2.

But wait! As I just said I just said Colossus told Dr. Forbin, "There is another system." DV compression can be used for HDTV (D-9 HD and DVCPRO HD). It ain't MPEG-2, either.

But wait! As I just said I just said I just said Colossus told Dr. Forbin, "There is another system." On2 Technologies says China is using its VP6 compression in EVD. And one-and-a-half billion EVD players are a lot!

Maybe China will, someday, use VP6 in EVD. In the meantime, EVD gets its HDTV via LSI Logic MPEG-2. Needless to say (which means I'm just filling up space), each and every DVD player on Planet Earth uses MPEG-2. So does each and every digital-cable box and the vast majority of the world's satellite receivers, DVRs, PVRs, or whatever the generic name for TiVo is? MPEG-2. Over-the-air DTV in ATSC, DVB-T, or ISDB-T flavors? MPEG-2, again.

Chivalry may be dead. MPEG-2 ain't.