MPEG-4 Roars at Streaming Media West

Although the battle cry of interoperability and openness has been uttered before, the streaming media landscape remains the near-exclusive domain of outstanding, but proprietary, architectures from Microsoft, RealNetworks and Apple. In recent months, however, those on the front line of the first generation of MPEG-4 products have fought their way out of the vaporware jungle, heralding the arrival of an impending onslaught of streaming products based on the open standard over the next three to 10 years.

Admittedly, the deep potential of MPEG-4 exceeds its delivered capability by orders of magnitude, but several vendors at Streaming Media West 2001 were indeed demonstrating actual, shipping, purchasable and implementable solutions.


Philips MP4Net

Philips has been involved in many aspects of the development of the ISO MPEG-4 standard and is active in standards bodies promoting interoperability between different vendors’ MPEG-4 implementations including the 3GPP, ISMA and M4IF. If and when MPEG-4 becomes the de-facto standard for delivery of digital media, Philips MP4Net may go down in history as the company that got there first on the wired Internet with its WebCine product line.

WebCine offers end-to-end Internet streaming using ISO-Standard MPEG-4, and consists of three version 1.0 products: WebCine Encoder, WebCine Server and WebCine Player. The products support the Simple and Advanced Simple profiles. The Encoder consists of hardware (including a Matrox Video Grabber) and application software running on Windows NT. Like the Encoder, the Server is available only as a bundled hardware and application software system, but runs Linux instead of NT. An enterprise version of the Server will be manufactured and sold Sun Micrososystems.

The WebCine Encoder sells for roughly $25,000, the WebCine Server for roughly $15,000, and the WebCine Player is free. The player is available for download now, as is sample content. The 1.1 version of the WebCine Player, due this fall, will be skinnable and will have an Active-X interface to allow Windows programmers to do pretty much anything they like with the technology.


Packet Video

Packet Video has delivered a line of products for wireless MPEG-4 using the Simple Video Profile as specified by the 3GPP and also supporting Temporal Scalability (dynamic rate control on the server). Pricing is not on a list schedule due to the nature of Packet Video’s customers (wireless carriers, handset manufacturers, etc.). Packet Video does have a PC-based player, but its purpose is to facilitate content and technical testing, not to act as a rendering tool for end-users. A Pocket PC version of the player is already shipping with systems such as Compaq’s iPaq.

As with the other front-line MPEG-4 implementers, Packet Video is working hard to make sure that interoperability doesn’t slip through their fingers.


Emblaze

Emblaze is a diverse company with a number of offerings, one of which is wireless MPEG-4. The Emblaze Wireless Media Platform, consisting of an Encoder, Server and Player, has already been deployed in Korea by KTF. Regarding interoperability, Emblaze is very active in the Wireless Multimedia Forum and the 3GPP, and for a few months has been doing interoperability testing with PacketVideo – a sign that companies in this space are determined to prevent standards forking.

Unlike PacketVideo, Emblaze has signed an agreement with Microsoft to support WMT for wireless Emblaze-based media delivery. This takes them out of the "pure" MPEG-4-only camp, but may be a wise business move. It will be a long time before these kinds of issues play out.


The Rest of the World

A number of other vendors are working with MPEG-4 at lower levels, such as design development and semiconductor manufacturing. iVast will be opening the beta program for its first MPEG-4 offerings in July. Envivio, whose MPEG-4 authoring tools demo wonderfully, has released nothing yet but is working with beta customers and has partnered with Sigma Designs to put Envivio's rendering technology on silicon. ObjectVideo, who claims to be ahead of the competition in implementing the daunting MPEG-4 Main profile, hopes to get product on the street later this year. Generic Media announced a partnership with PacketVideo to add PacketVideo's MPEG-4 media delivery to Generic's growing list of formats available to subscribers. And some companies not showing at Streaming Media West 2001, such as GMV Networks, hope to be major players in the MPEG-4 games, with products on the way as well.

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