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The Standardization Issue: Miles to Go

Clearly, supporters of standardization in the streaming media industry will need to wait patiently as the codec and player wars continue. In a technical session focusing on interoperability at Streaming Media Europe today, panellists agreed there is no indication of forthcoming compromise.

The industry caught a glimmer of such hope during Rob Glaser's keynote at Streaming Media East, held last June in New York City, when it was announced that RealServer would host and stream QuickTime content. Michael Casey, chief executive officer of GMV Network, reflected that the announcement, "was a step in the right direction."

The inherent problems for content providers and distributors become increasingly serious as they try to serve and scale three major platforms to appease users' media player preferences.

"We have to run parallel infrastructures. I'd love to see a standard - it would make my life easier," quipped Frank Stone, director of operations at Intel's Internet Media Servers.

A Bright Side to the War?

However, the codec war does provide some healthy competition between groups, and it could be argued that advancements might roll out more slowly without the deep investments of time and staffing that competitive development invites.

"With open source, you start to lose that control and won't make leaps with the technology," said Tom Sauer, manager of broadband systems, professional services at RealNetworks.

Moreover, standardization rarely promotes cooperation. The ratified standardization of the MPEG4 codec, based on Apple's QuickTime file container format, simply invited another wave of competition from both Real and Microsoft, who then delivered proprietary variations of the standard. "MPEG4 is not the holy grail," said Geoff Allen, chief executive officer of Anystream.

This is particularly frustrating for Casey, who is especially concerned for content creators and distributors. "Standards can be efficient and effective. We need to grow the industry before we don't have one," said Casey.

The root of the problem lies within the revenue streams of the platform providers. Real, for example, derives significant profit from selling its proprietary server platform and player.

"Part of the competitive advantage is owning real estate on the client side. Until we discover new revenue sources, we won't see standardization," admits Sauer.

Anystream, in particular, benefits slightly from the inoperability of the three main streaming codecs - one of the company's selling points is its integration of multiple codecs into Anystream enterprise encoding solution. But Allen still supports future compromise that favors content distributors and ultimately, the Web audience.

"I want to call a spade a spade," said Allen, reinforcing the fact that inoperability issues are a direct result of stiff market positioning for limited revenue sources.

The Open Source Angle

In a subsequent panel session focusing on the open source issue, similar attitudes prevailed.

A key benefit of instituting a standards-based, open source system would be the ease of use it would facilitate for the end-user. "If we're going to make this industry better than TV, we need to make it easier than television," noted GMV's Casey.

Consumers typically purchase televisions today based on either price or brand reputation, Casey said. But the TV experience is not complicated by proprietary signals, as is streaming. The competition between Real, Windows Media, and QuickTime alienates the segment of the population that is not tech savvy, he maintained.

Major streaming media companies have dabbled in open source development, although there has not been an organized industry-wide effort to cement a standard. According to Casey, a complete open source solution already exists -- albeit in a rudimentary form -- in the combination of the MPEG2-based video codec, Oyster, and Vorbis, an audio codec created by developers at iCast to compete with the proprietary MP3 format.

To illustrate the possibilities of industry-wide development based on open source standards, the panel pointed to the example of Apache. About 62 percent of the Internet servers in use today are based on the standards of Apache.

But while the end result of dedicating business resources to open source development would help to advance the streaming industry as a whole, it is difficult to convince individual business owners that there is a compelling reason not to continue competing in the battle of the codecs.

The advancement of the industry as a whole could be achieved through cooperation, but the abandonment of the competitive spirit is a difficult and controversial objective. The drive for open source development needs to be consumer driven, panellists said. And while an organized effort is unlikely, perhaps the lack of mass consumer adoption of streaming media as a broadcast medium will open the eyes of the powers that be.

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