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Interactive MPEG4 – Who Will Lead the Way?

The freewheeling, bottom-up culture that built the Internet meets the deliberate, measured consortia that manage broadcast technology. Add in the influence of entertainment content companies, and it's no wonder you get some culture clash. On the one hand, you have the streaming media community, innovative and entrepreneurial, devoted to standards but looking for "good stuff cheap" (even better if free). These are the folks that brought us protocols for real-time streaming, compression codecs that squeeze mammoth video files down to size, and interactive techniques to make video a two-way communications experience. What's more, all of it is (more or less) freely available to learn about, experiment with, and deploy in all kinds of ways.

On the other hand, there's the broadcast industry making massive capital investments in facilities and equipment, and deeply committed to standards built to last. The need for interoperability and stability is paramount. Of course, all that compatibility comes with a cost. Standards bodies publish specs, carefully negotiated over many years among consortia of technology and content vendors. These specs are sold--both the specifications documents themselves and the right to apply what's inside them--as their creators try to recoup the huge costs of developing and shepherding the standard through the process. The result is often a technology, such as MPEG2, which is considered a safe enough investment for everyone from consumer electronics makers to content companies.

MPEG4 is one of those technologies that has the potential to straddle both industry approaches to technology adoption. Two innovative companies are working to get interactive MPEG4 a greater share in the marketplace, each from the direction suggested by its roots. IBM is promoting the "Internet model" with its unpolished-but-usable IBM Toolkit for MPEG4, freely available for anyone to download from the alphaWorks Web site. Envivio, with its roots in France Telecom and one of the original authors of the MPEG4 standard, offers a full suite of expensive but full-featured MPEG4 applications and appliances aimed at the enterprise and broadcast markets.

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