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Commentary: MPEG-4 is Dead

I've been down on MPEG-4 for a while now, despite my respect for many of the folks associated with the standard. Given the adoption of Microsoft's Windows Media Video 9 by the DVD Forum, there's increasing reason to believe, to paraphrase an old Southern expression, that the MPEG-4 dog just won't hunt. It hasn't yet and probably never will, at least in any serious commercial way.

What spurred this belief into this column was a quote I read in High St@kes, No Prisoners, a book by Charles H. Ferguson, who founded Vermeer Technologies, the FrontPage developer purchased by Microsoft for $130 million back in 1996. The book is fascinating on a number of levels: the hunt for financing, brushes with Netscape and other dot.com high fliers, and, of course, the story of the Microsoft acquisition.

In the book, the professorial Ferguson delineates how software architecture is key to producing stable software and how standards impact the marketplace. Are standards better set by so-called monopolists (e.g. Microsoft) or standards bodies? On the last issue, he writes:

"The battle to create and own a proprietary industry standard generates rapid improvements in price and performance, at least until somebody emerges totally dominant. If fact, even after a monopolist emerges, there is still considerable pressure to innovate, because unless you can induce your installed base to upgrade frequently, you have a hard time continuing to grow. There is a risk that a monopolist can misbehave, but slow moving, least-common-denominator, nonproprietary, committee-developed standards are often much worse than any monopoly."

That last sentence kind of describes MPEG-4 to a T, doesn't it? Of course, your first thought might be, "Well, what about MPEG-1 and 2, two standards that have succeeded beyond any reasonable expectations?" Great question, so I'll address them first.

Simply stated, MPEG-1 and 2 were developed almost in a vacuum, with no real competition in the computer marketplace. In fact, they were developed almost exclusively for non-PC devices—MPEG-1 for VideoCD and CD-i (DVD-like players that connected directly to television sets for playback), and MPEG-2 for broadcast and DVD.

At the time, with computers going through that rough, 80486, Windows 3.1 stage, PC-based compression technologies danced the bitter compromise between quality and display rate. Whereas MPEG-1 could count on (and required) dedicated hardware for playback, Indeo and Cinepak had to play on the computers of the day. Definitely no competition for MPEG-1 since their focus was entirely different.

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