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MPEG DASH and HEVC: Do Standards Drive Innovation or Stifle It?

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It came as no surprise to anyone working in our industry that MPEG DASH and HEVC were the talk of this year's IBC in Amsterdam -- at least in the Connected World area of the show in Hall 14, in which IBC cordons off those of us whose interest in the synergy between broadcast and online comes firmly from the online angle.

What was a bit surprising, however, was the degree to which both the DASH delivery scheme and the HEVC codec (also known as H.265) were discussed as faits accomplis and debated as either "it's about time" standards or a combined one-two punch that would be the death knell of innovation in the online video technology space. As Tim Siglin wrote in his post-event briefing, both were the subjects of show-floor discussions and Amsterdam-fueled late-night shouting matches, more intense than previous years' discussions of, say, HTML5 or H.264 -- the former of which was held in cautious regard as a passing fad, the latter of which seemed like a well-deserved chance to take a break from what had seemed like a codec war that was never going to end.

But the combination of MPEG DASH and HEVC created a perfect storm in which it was quite clear that for every vendor in our space who feels that any sort of standard is anathema to the advance of both technological invention and capitalist progress, there are just as many who feel like agreeing upon a standard delivery system and corresponding codec will actually enable greater innovation to occur on different fronts. The fact that word came out just prior to IBC that the French government had "mandated" the use of MPEG DASH in all connected televisions gave ammunition to the anti-standards contingent -- which, of course, includes a subset that also happens to be anti-European, or at least Francophobic. (As Siglin also reported, the reality is quite a bit more nuanced -- the requirement applies only to France's TNT 2.0 HbbTV connected TV scheme.)

That's exactly the kind of nuance that makes both all the difference in the world (at least in one country) and, in the end, very little difference at all in the universe. In the world of online video technology providers, such a technicality is the sort that can indeed mean that the road of innovation may be coming to an end, and with it the very lifeblood of an industry that's barely 15 years old. In the wider video universe, however, the adoption of MPEG DASH, HEVC, or any other standard is hardly apocalyptic. If anything, it's quite the opposite.

I think back to when I first joined Streaming Media in 2004 and got into a heated argument about whether or not the term "streaming media" could be used generically to refer to either streaming or progressive download, or whether we must be slaves to a distinction that, to most consumers, doesn't exist. To me, a relative outsider at the time, the importance of being technically accurate seemed less important than the need to settle on a common term that meant something to a wider audience. Of course, as it turns out, it's been a combination of streaming and progressive download in the form of adaptive bitrate delivery that's won out, at least when it comes to online video content that can be played on multiple devices.

Likewise, I'm hopeful that should MPEG DASH and HEVC become standards -- either de facto or mandated -- technological advances will continue down other roads of innovation that will ultimately be beneficial to the entire online video universe, the one that includes content creators, publishers, and consumers. At the same time, I'm mindful of the fact that such standardization might very well mean the end of the world -- but only as we know it.

This article appears in the October/November, 2012, issue of Streaming Media magazine under the title "The End of the World as We Know It."

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