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Microsoft Opens Windows Media 9 Codec to SMPTE

Small things come in big packages, three hundred sixty-five pages, to be exact. That's the size of the massive tome that landed on Peter Symes' desk recently.

Symes is Vice President of Engineering for the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE). The document contains detailed specifications for the Windows Media 9 compression technology, which Microsoft has submitted to SMPTE for consideration as an official standard. It details the structure and syntax of a WM9 bitstream, as well as instructions as to how a decoder should parse and decode the bitstream. Following the specification, a vendor could write their own software, an encoder for example, that creates a video bitstream that's fully compatible with any software or hardware that supports WM9.

Standards Equal Compatibility and Stability
This interoperability in video compression is not a new concept. Decoders for the MPEG2 standard, for example, have been implemented in millions of devices, from cable set-top boxes to DVD players to TV head-end equipment to desktop PCs. Although the standard has not changed, MPEG2 encoders have matured over the years. The encoders have improved since the early days--better processing, faster algorithms, better interfaces, support for more platforms. Since they all adhere to the MPEG2 bitstream specification, the video files created by any of them are readable with any MPEG2 decoder.

By proposing the WM9 codec as a SMPTE standard, Microsoft hopes to position WM9 as a potential successor to MPEG2 in the video production and distribution marketplace. Of course, even without it being an official standard, Microsoft will license the WM9 compression technology to anyone who antes up the license fee. However, to date, the film and broadcast industries have been somewhat resistant to adopting it for several reasons. One reason is that change and obsolescence of PC software technologies comes too fast for the long technology cycles required for the broadcast infrastructure. Industries that have a clear need for stable, proven technology can't afford to become dependent on core technologies that change "on internet time".

Of equal significance is the reluctance of content owners to rely on a single vendor to "hold the keys" to all of their content. Standardization provides the means for anyone to create their own implementation of the technology, on any platform, for any purpose, giving potential adopters a greater measure of control.

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