Commentary: MPEG-4 is Dead

When MPEG-1 was first introduced into the personal computer space, it was via upgrade kits that had a failure rate exceeded only by the Boston Red Sox's post-Bambino attempts to win a World Series. Three or four years later, the initial attempts to integrate MPEG-2 into computers via hardware playback accelerators met with much the same fate.

In fact, both MPEG-1 and MPEG-2 owe their entire success in the PC space to Moore's Law, which boosted computer performance sufficiently to play both formats without dedicated hardware. As we'll see in a moment, what Moore's Law can give, it can also take away, a prime factor in MPEG-4's imminent demise.

Contrast this to the current streaming media environment. Before MPEG-4 was introduced, three streaming technologies enjoyed widespread use: RealVideo, Microsoft's Windows Media Video, and Sorenson Video. MPEG-4 offers lower quality than any of them.

In addition to offering lower quality, MPEG-4 also sports the obligation to pay royalties, not only on encoders and decoders, but also on content. Given that decoders for the other three have always been free, it's doubtful that this costs more, looks worse "value proposition" will win many takers in the streaming media space.

This leaves appliances like DVD players, cell phones, and PDAs as the last hope for MPEG-4, but Moore's Law will prove its undoing. Specifically, in the past, these devices were driven by single-purpose chips that could only be prudently designed and manufactured for a single, well-supported standard.

Today, many of these devices are built around general purpose digital signal processors (DSPs) that can support multiple compression technologies. Since these chips aren't locked into a specific technology, this lessens the importance of standards in the technology decision.

Finally, it's hard to minimize the importance of the DVD Forum's provisional approval for Microsoft's VC-9 technology, essentially Windows Media Video 9, along with two other technologies, H.264 and MPEG-2, as mandatory on next-generation playback devices.

This announcement has three significant implications. First, it forces the committee-driven standards to compete primarily on performance, something neither has had to do yet. Second, it opens the door for proprietary standards to compete against committee standards in other markets, whether digital television or Dick Tracy-like video watches. The combined impact of these realities will either force committee members to work harder and faster or spell the death of committee-based video codec standards.

Finally, it presents Microsoft with an economic justification for continuing to invest in Windows Media Video technology. To date, Microsoft's obvious investment in video technology and infrastructure has been made for strategic reasons, not for profit. The promise of DVD-related license fees should spur development even more.

This article first appeared in the April 2004 issue of EMedia magazine. For a detailed look at the codec testing, see "Framing B2B Video" in the same issue of EMedia.

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