MPEG-4: The next big multimedia thing?
By Jon Surmacz
(IDG) -- Last week, advocates of MPEG-4, a multimedia standard developed by the Motion Picture Experts Group, got a shot in the arm when Real Networks, Inc. announced that it would support the emerging standard. For its part, Real Networks will participate in a wireless standards body promoting MPEG-4, and will use the standard in its own players, servers and tools, as well as through a third-party client plug-in.
MPEG-4, touted as a successor to MPEG-2 (the standard used for compression and transmission of digital television signals and DVDs), has been in development since the mid-1990s. Unlike its predecessor, MPEG-4 can describe a multimedia scene where digital audio, video, text and other images can be treated as objects. Each object is described by a special binary language, which tells the decoder (a Web browser plug-in for example) what the objects are, where they are and what they can do in the scene.
For example, a media company using MPEG-4 development tools could prepare a program for the Web that allows viewers to click on graphic elements of the video, like a stock ticker or a map, for related information. This is a big improvement over MPEG-2, which is roughly as interactive as a VCR (users can play, rewind, pause, stop and so on).
There's are other advantages too. MPEG-4 gives content developers a break. Until now they have had to encode content for several different players, such as Real Networks' Real Player, Microsoft's Windows Media Player and Apple's QuickTime. Each manufacturer supports its own proprietary file format and may or may not support other codecs (compression/decompression algorithms that reduce the size of a file). But all of these players support MPEG-4, albeit in various degrees. The more interoperable the distribution and playback technology becomes, the lesser the workload of content developers. And because MPEG-4 maintains relatively high quality even over slow connections, it also holds promise for wireless devices.
"The goal of MPEG-4," says Boris Felts, MPEG-4 solution manager at Brisbane, California-based Envivio, "is to have a mixed media application for streaming for any kind of device." Envivio has developed an MPEG-4 plug-in for Real Networks.
MPEG-4 content may take a while to get here, however; licensing terms for MPEG-4 won't even be announced until January 2002. But when it does arrive, analysts say, it could open the door to new markets.
Simon Poulter, spokesperson for Philips Electronics, which recently released its WebCine line of MPEG-4 compliant products, says that the standard will level the playing field for smaller content developers who were previously constrained by proprietary media formats.
"It allows content developers to be as creative as they can without being worried about proprietary interests and licensing," says Poulter.
But Steven Vonder Haar, analyst at Boston-based Yankee group, says that if the major players (like Real Networks, Philips and Microsoft) start lending their support to one particular flavor of MPEG-4 over another, content developers will find themselves in a familiar mess.
"If Envivio, for example, sticks to an interoperable MPEG-4 standard then that really does change the marketplace," says Vonder Haar.
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