Alliance promotes streaming standards

A group of Internet companies, including Apple Computer, Cisco Systems, Kasenna, Philips Electronics and Sun Microsystems, launched an alliance to promote open standards for streaming media over the Internet.

Hoping to inject a cooperative spirit into the fiercely competitive streaming media market, a group of Internet companies, including Apple Computer, Cisco Systems, Kasenna, Philips Electronics and Sun Microsystems, launched an alliance to promote open standards for streaming media over the Internet.

The Internet Streaming Media Alliance (ISMA) is concerned that the streaming media marketplace is being adversely affected by noninteroperable, proprietary technology and that the industry needs to move toward an interoperable standard.

Rather than becoming a body for standards development, like the Internet Engineering Task Force, ISMA said it plans only to identify existing standards and contribute to those in development to produce an end-to-end standard that technology companies can build upon.

Their efforts may be hindered, though, until two leading providers of streaming media technology, Microsoft and RealNetworks, join the alliance.

The first specification from the alliance, to be circulated at a meeting in February, will define an implementation agreement based on the new MPEG-4 compression format for streaming video and audio.

In the current market, the leading providers of proprietary streaming media technology - RealNetworks, followed by Microsoft and Apple - compete via proprietary formats and distribution technologies, a situation that's costly and burdensome for content and service providers. To accommodate the plethora of devices and playback software built on proprietary technology, companies must laboriously encode content for multiple bit rates and formats, and deliver it over separate server networks.

Asked how streaming technology companies will compete in an open-standards market, Tom Jacobs, director of digital media service in the Network Storage Division at Sun, said companies like Sun and Cisco do just that. "In the open-standards-based marketplace, it's a market where you compete upon the implementation, prices, service and support, rather than the intellectual property and all the keys."

Apple, trailing in market share, is a founder of the ISMA alliance. But for now, Real and Microsoft, while voicing their support of open standards, have not elected to join.

Martin Plaehn, senior vice president of media systems at RealNetworks, said Real was evaluating the ISMA proposal.

Dave Fester, general manager of the Windows Digital Media Division at Microsoft, said that while "standards are good" and Microsoft generally supports them strongly, he believes that for media, the pace of innovation makes them impractical. "Customers will demand the best quality," he said, noting that Microsoft has released four "significant updates" to its audio and video formats in two years.

Sujata Ramnarayan, an analyst at GartnerGroup Dataquest, said the alliance is a good idea, but until there's a working prototype, it's "just a concept." Thus, until there's a working specification that content providers decide to use, she thinks it unlikely that either Real or Microsoft will join.

The ISMA Web site at www.ISM-Alliance.org will publish completed specifications and distribute information on the Alliance's activities.