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Apple Demos QuickTime 6 with MPEG-4 Support

During Tuesday’s QuickTime Live developer’s conference, Apple (www.apple.com), unveiled QuickTime 6, its newest version of its streaming system, featuring support for MPEG-4. Apple also previewed a brand new addition to the QuickTime family, called QuickTime Broadcaster Software, for streaming live events.

But the final release of QuickTime 6, which was initially going to be available as a public preview release, was held back because of recent MPEG-4 licensing issues. Apple said that QuickTime 6 software is "complete and ready for release", but the company is delaying its release until "MPEG-4 video licensing terms are improved."

"We’re happy to pay encode and decode fees," said Frank Casanova, director of QuickTime marketing at Apple. "It’s a small price to pay for such an incredible standard." But Casanova said Apple disagrees with per-stream licensing terms. Casanova said Apple met with the MPEG LA to discuss the licensing terms and are working with them to re-think the fees. Once the terms are right, Casanova said it would "turn on the fire hydrant" and release QuickTime 6 to the public. Until then, users will continue to use and download QuickTime 5. "There’s a long life to QuickTime 5," he said.

On January 31, the MPEG LA, the company charged with setting royalty rates for MPEG-4 patent holders, announced licensing terms. In a surprise to many, it set fees at 25 cents per encoder and decoder (capped at $1 million per company), as well as a fee of two-cents per hour for all content whether streamed, downloaded, or packaged on DVD/CDs.

As a result, some in the streaming industry have responded with criticism, saying that the two-cents per hour fee may inhibit content providers from releasing content with MPEG-4. The MPEG LA later said that the fees are not set in stone, and that it is willing to take another look at them.

QuickTime Broadcaster Not Released Either

Apple’s stance on the MPEG LA licensing terms is the most severe reaction so far, but that’s because Apple has a lot riding on MPEG-4. Clearly, if the licensing terms weren’t announced last week, Apple would have released QuickTime 6 this week.

QuickTime 6 comes with support for Advanced Audio Coding (AAC), the CELP MPEG-4 speech codec, adheres to the Internet Streaming Media Alliance (ISMA) 1.0 specification, and is compatible with Flash 5. In addition, QT6 plays MPEG-1 and MPEG-2 files, and has DVC Pro (PAL) support.

Aside from the QuickTime 6 upgrade, Apple also demonstrated a new product called QuickTime Broadcaster, software that lets users stream live MPEG-4, for use with Mac OS X. The release of Broadcaster was also held back due to the licensing issues. Aside from MPEG-4, Broadcaster supports all QuickTime codecs, as well as a real-time preview function. It also comes with the ability to record and "hint" a file in real time so that it automatically archives a live event to disk.

Interestingly, QuickTime Broadcaster is being released for free, which competes directly with Sorenson’s Broadcast software, available for $249 for Windows machines and $199 for Macs. Why compete with Sorenson? Casanova said that Sorenson’s software isn’t made for Mac OS X, so Apple wanted to created something for the year old OS X platform. The additional support for MPEG-4 was another reason.

Now that Apple is pushing MPEG-4, there is concern that it may drop Sorenson’s codecs. But Casanova said that QuickTime 6 won’t drop support for Sorenson, instead MPEG-4 will run alongside Sorenson’s codecs. "[Content providers] can pick what codec they want," said Casanova. "The movie studios like Sorenson’s V3 codec, so it’s an important part of QuickTime."

Released: QuickTime Streaming Server 4

The only software component to be released today was Apple’s QuickTime Streaming Server 4. Casanova said that the server doesn’t infringe on MPEG-4 intellectual property, it just reads the hint track and sends movie data, so it is exempt from the licensing terms. Some features of the server include support for MPEG-4 streaming (.MP4 files), QuickTime (.MOV) and MP3 streaming.

QuickTime Streaming Server is designed for Mac OS X Server, but it is also available as open source under the name Darwin Streaming Server. Open source versions of the server are available currently for Linux, Solaris and Windows NT/2000. More on QTSS is available at: www.apple.com/quicktime/products/qtss/.

Partnerships with Ericsson and Sun

In related news, Apple announced on Tuesday, that it formed a deal with Ericsson and Sun Microsystems to build a wireless content network, for delivery of MPEG-4 content to cell phones. Apple VP Phil Schiller, who gave the keynote speech this morning, called this the "first CDN for the wireless world".

The solution is based on Apple’s QuickTime authoring, uses Sun’s new streaming server systems for internet delivery, and is helped out by Ericsson technology for access to mobile operators.

"The Content Delivery Solution will open up new revenue streams for operators by providing users with high quality multimedia services, such as movie clips and instant news on demand," said Torbjörn Nilsson, senior vice president, Ericsson Marketing and Strategic Business Development. "The cooperation with Apple and Sun ensures availability of multimedia content, thus bridging the media industry with the mobile community."

The three companies say they talked to all the larger mobile players in the market although they are not ready to release any details of those discussions.

Alternative Codec?

In the meantime, other companies are trying to muscle into the spotlight. New York-based codec company On2.com (www.on2.com), which sent an open letter to the ISMA saying that its own open sourced VP3.2 codec should be considered as a replacement. Douglas McIntyre, CEO of On2.com said in the letter that since VP3.2 is open source, it requires no fees. "We charge no encoder fees, no decoder fees, no usage fees," he explained

When asked if On2 would give over its newer VP4 codec instead, McIntyre said that it want to keep that as a revenue generator. Still, there was no word on whether MPEG LA or ISMA responded to the open letter. Because MPEG-4 has come so far along, it seems unlikely that the ISMA would choose another codec at this juncture.

Still, Apple may lose some valuable developer mindshare by delaying its rollout. Casanova, however, brushes off such concerns. "We don’t really feel we’re doing ourselves a disservice in not releasing QT6. We want to make it clear that MPEG-4 is the future," he said.

Apple seems confident that the licensing issues are just a small roadblock to QuickTime 6’s actual release. Asked when it might be released, Casanova was vague, but held fast. "It’s not a matter of if, it's a matter of when," said Casanova. "Open standards are the way of the future."

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