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ISMA Unveils MPEG-4 Specs

On Tuesday, the Internet Streaming Media Alliance (ISMA), an industry organization forged to ensure the technical success of standards in streaming, released to the public its first product, an interoperability specification for MPEG-4, called "ISMA 1.0".

Currently, the ISMA counts Sun, Apple, Cisco, Philips, IBM, AOL Time-Warner and others as members, while RealNetworks and Microsoft are the biggest holdouts.

Tom Jacobs, president of the ISMA and a director at Sun Microsystems, said that this specification was like a "blueprint" for streaming media that will spark new MPEG-4 interoperable products. The ISMA is perhaps the largest of a new breed of standards organizations, which seek not to create standards, but to promote interoperability between different vendors’ implementations of open standards.

ISMA 1.0 identifies two profiles, Profile 0 (narrowband/wireless) and Profile 1 (broadband), which is a superset of Profile 0. Profile 0 has a maximum bit rate of 64Kbps for visual data, and maximum combined audio and visual bandwidth of 128Kbps. The video maps to the MPEG-4 Simple Profile @ Level 1, allowing a single video object, and suggesting a typical visual session size of QCIF (176 x 144). The Audio corresponds to the MPEG-4 High Quality Audio Profile @ Level 2, supporting a single audio object with one or two channels, up to 48000 Hz sampling rate, CELP (audio codec for voice), and Low Complexity Dolby AAC (audio codec for music).

Profile 1 supports a maximum bit rate of 1.5Mbps for visual data and the same for visual and audio data combined. The video equates to MPEG-4’s Advanced Simple Profile @ Level 3, allowing a single video object, and specifying a Typical Visual Session Size of CIF (352 x 288). For Audio, Profile 1 equates to MPEG-4’s High Quality Audio Profile @ Level 2 – same as Profile 0.

For a file format ISMA simply points to the MPEG-4 file format, which is based on the QuickTime file format. For transport, ISMA 1.0 leans on several IETF standards.

Jacobs said that the ISMA (www.isma.tv ) has spent lots of time doing interoperability testing of products built on the ISMA 1.0 interoperability specification. "We wanted to make sure we were dotting every I and crossing ever T in our spec," he said. "We wanted to make sure we all agreed how it should be interpreted." More importantly, the ISMA members wanted to test their in-house products against each other to make sure they worked together and interoperated seamlessly.

ISMA members will get the full electronic document (in Adobe Acrobat PDF format) for free. Non-members, however, must purchase the specification at the ISMA web site for $150. "The goal is not to create a revenue stream, just to not have it be randomly passed about," said Jacobs. The $150 ISMA 1.0 PDF does not have encryption security, but it does identify the sole purchaser.

Mixed Reactions

Member companies seemed happy about the spec. Ken Lowe, VP of business development at Sigma Designs (www.sigmadesigns.com) had a positive reaction to the news, saying the spec would "spur the growth of the streaming media industry." But Sigma has a stake, since it is an active member of the ISMA, working in the technical subcommittee. (Ken Lowe, other ISMA members, and industry analysts will be discussing this release today at 2pm PST on the Hands-On talk show).

Sigma Designs, which predominately makes MPEG-based chipset solutions for IP-based video solutions, said it would add support for MPEG-4 soon. "The products we have will be ISMA 1.0 compliant," said Lowe, referring to new products to be unveiled later this month. Sigma's chips already support MPEG-1 and MPEG-2 decoding, although Sigma will add support for Windows Media soon. "We will embrace some proprietary standards that make business sense," said Lowe.

Not surprisingly, non-ISMA companies aren't that excited about the specs. Michael Aldridge, product manager at Microsoft's Digital Media Division said the ISMA is just creating one more implementation of MPEG-4. "ISMA is not a standard," he said simply. Aldridge called it a "lack of a complete solution" since there was no DRM or end-to-end solution unlike, say, Microsoft's Windows Media.

Still Aldridge had nice words for MPEG-4 saying it does help to enable more interoperability and has improved on the MPEG-1 and MPEG-2 standards.

Has Microsoft considering joining the ISMA? "No," said Aldridge. "We've done a lot to make MPEG-4 popular." A few years ago, Microsoft released its own early implementation of MPEG-4, and it recently partnered with NTT DoCoMO and Sharp to use a wireless MPEG-4 implementation. However, these are word games from Redmond because file format, transport, video, and audio are necessary components for interoperability. Compliant MPEG-4 video, which is all that Microsoft has done, is just one of the four components needed for meaningful interoperability.

Of course Aldridge also talked about the difference in video quality, citing Windows Media version 8 codec supporting "near DVD as low as 500 Kbps." "Video quality [in MPEG-4] is not state of the art--they will admit that," he said.

But Lowe said the primary focus of the specification is the communications protocols, not the codecs. "What's left open is the codec," he said, calling MPEG-4 "codec agnostic". Still, Lowe is convinced that MPEG-4's video quality will be fine tuned much like the proprietary standards have been. "MPEG-4 is early on in its evolution as a codec," he said.

Still, Aldridge questioned the high bit rate in the spec. "1.5Mbps? Who has that bandwidth?" scoffed Aldridge "I don't see them enabling business models very soon." The ISMA spec, however, simply calls for a maximum bandwidth of 1.5Mbps.

As of press time, RealNetworks didn't return calls calling for comment on the ISMA news.

ISMA Compliant Products Coming Soon

So far, however, no tools exist to take advantage of the new specification, but since the spec was just released today, not many vendors had the opportunity to get products ready for release. Jacobs said that many vendors will want to wait so their products can be compatible with the specification. But already, a few companies have MPEG-4 products on the market. What's unknown is how much work these vendors will have to do to re-release their products to be compliant with the ISMA 1.0 spec.

"Most of the companies releasing MPEG-4 products today are members of the patent pool," he said, "and they may have claims and patents in process." A company with MPEG-4 tools, like Philips, has a stake in the patent pool, so it won't likely have to pay fees to other companies, said Jacobs.

As part of the specification, the ISMA is looking to implement a certification process, which is in the final stages of definition. "Ideally, we'd have a self-certification process," said Jacobs, although he said that there would also likely be a laboratory model, where companies pay an outside authority for certification. "We need lightweight, but also rigorous options," he said.

The next thing on the ISMA's agenda is digital rights management, which it hopes to unveil either at the end of the year, or in early 2002. "There's a lot of member activity on getting a framework for DRM," said Jacobs, noting that they're looking at IPMP. The organization will also look into the issue of dynamic scalability, an advanced and elegant part of the MPEG-4 architecture, since those are not addressed in ISMA 1.0.

Regarding the MPEG-4 patent pool, the ISMA said it has made an official request to the M4IF for clarification for an understanding of the pool. Profile 0 and Profile 1 were specifically designed to utilize only patents expected to be authorized for licensing by the M4IF by roughly the end of the year. This will allow quick adoption of ISMA 1.0, and the same theory applies to the planning of future ISMA interoperability specifications.

Demand from Content Owners?

Apple, no doubt, is betting a lot on MPEG-4. In recent months, Apple has stolidly fallen behind the MPEG-4 standard, calling it the future of QuickTime. With QuickTime usage falling behind RealNetworks' and Microsoft' streaming systems, MPEG-4 may be Apple's biggest gamble yet.

But in the end, demand for MPEG-4 must come from somewhere else besides the ISMA-backed vendor companies. Aldridge said that content owners ultimately decide the success of streaming systems. "A movie studio and/or label decides how their content is rendered," he said, pointing to Microsoft's initiatives with Intertainer, which offers name-brand streaming content to customers.

In principle, Lowe agrees, noting "Content is king. If you have content, you can attract installation." But Lowe sees this as a boon to MPEG-4, not a drawback, asserting, "This is coming in at the right time."

As standards go, MPEG has been very popular. TV networks and movie studios currently use MPEG-2 in digital cable, satellite TV, DVD, HDTV, and other markets. Now, MPEG-4 is trying to follow in its footsteps, with the promise of bringing multimedia to an increasingly networked world.

Still, standards have historically been challenged in the computing world. Many companies have tweaked standards such that different vendors' implementations do not interoperate. So either one vendor ends up controlling what might have been an open standard or the standard dies because of the lack of growth-fueling interoperability. Preventing these scenarios is a planned byproduct of the ISMA. The ISMA’s core mission of bringing about standards in streaming via MPEG-4 may well be harder to achieve.

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