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Internet Streaming Media Alliance Formed

If the presence of marketing material can predict an industry trend, then keep an eye on MPEG-4. All across the exhibit floor at Streaming Media West, MPEG-4 decorates signs promising a future in which the dwindling breed of content companies can deliver content to a mass audience with relative ease and reduced cost.

The ultimate goal of standardization is to create a user experience that is as easy as pushing one button on a remote control. It is likely that the fire is fueled by companies which have not managed to grab a large market share in the PC streaming market, foreseeing a definite opportunity in the market for wireless devices and set-top boxes.

Today, several companies, including Apple, Cisco, Kassena, Phillips, Sun Microsystems and IBM, joined together, to form the Internet Streaming Media Alliance (ISMA). The goal of the ISMA (www.ISM-Alliance.com)is to promote open standards and interoperability, while not necessarily squashing competition.

One flaw with companies that currently tout the cost-saving advantages of encoding in MPEG-4, is that the standard is not yet completely defined.

"We've looked at eight different versions of MPEG-4 and none of them were compatible," stated Frank Casanova, director of QuickTime product marketing at Apple (www.apple.com). QuickTime was considering adding support for the MPEG-4 codec in the QuickTime player.

The companies behind the group have joined forces and dedicated some engineering resources to select a subset of the standards endorsed by the International Standards Organization (ISO), and according to Philip R. Graham, Director of Engineering at the Cisco Technology Center (www.cisco.com), the group hopes to release its Draft Specification 1.0 by February. The initial specification will outline MPEG-4 streaming over IP.

"A standard such as MPEG-4 would solve many issues facing the industry today such as the ability for consumers to play any format with a single player and in general, make it easier to offer many video related services. It would also benefit content providers who would not have to encode at different bit rates and formats," said Sujata Ramnarayan, senior analyst with the Garter Group.

ISMA intends to define a complete end-to-end specification; however, it will be player agnostic. According to Satish Menon, CTO of Kassena (www.kassena.com), both Real and Microsoft have a plug-in player architecture that could allow for the support of additional codecs. The player could also be java-based and transparent to the user, although Graham points out that no member's technology will receive preference.

Casanova states that QuickTime is by no means abandoning Sorenson, but they are open to supporting multiple codecs. QuickTime, which uses the Internet Engineering Task Force's (IETF) standard RTP transfer protocol, has sought to create a community amongst content creators with a QuickTime preference.

Casanova believes that it is difficult to attribute a direct financial gain from QuickTime's decision to remain IETF compliant; however, he does believe that it provides comfort to content providers that are part of the "Q-TV ecosystem". Casanova also pointed out that QuickTime has never made a piece of content obsolete since its inception in 1991. Although, before 1999 QuickTime only offered progressive downloads rather than real-time streaming.

RealNetworks was approached in the past week by the ISMA, and is still considering the possibility of joining. Ben Rotholtz, general manager, products and systems for RealNetworks indicated that while it was in full support of standards organizations, they were not convinced that MPEG-4 was the solution. "MPEG-4 is based on H.261, which is over a decade old. It is not the best technology available," said Rotholtz.

Microsoft, meanwhile, seems to have been caught unaware. Sean Alexander, Technical Product Manager at Microsoft, said he was unfamiliar with the announcement and couldn't comment on it.

Innovation is often spurred by competition. Rotholtz feels that Real's proprietary solution is the best available and questions whether the Industry should accept a technology with larger files sizes and what he believes is poorer quality. Casanova agrees that standards organizations are not as likely to produce cutting edge technologies. "A particular company will be able to innovate a codec faster in their backroom, than a standards body," said Casanova.

It is undeniable that the streaming media industry as a whole, would stand to gain from interoperable standards and a simplified end-user experience. Menon points out that the MPEG-2 standard has enabled mass DVD adoption and the sale of DVD players at a low price point. The precedent for the commercial success of standards-based technology does exist.

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