Does streaming media need standards?

Television has grown to its ubiquitous state because of a common standard - without this to rally around, streaming media may never reach the same heights

In 1964, it was easy to believe that the "Picturephone" that was demonstrated at the New York World's Fair would be in every home in just a few years.

By the summer of 1969, we were convinced that humans would be waltzing around Mars by now. In the mid-1990s, conventional wisdom would have you believe that your local supermarket was obsolete and that you would be buying everything online.

Well, few homes have anything that resembles a Picturephone, humans have not landed on Mars, and local retailers are still doing nicely. As baseball great-cum-pop philosopher Yogi Berra is reputed to have put it, some things are hard to predict -- especially the future.

But even a modest inspection reveals another truth. Humans, via robotic proxies, have landed on Mars. The US Department of Commerce recently reported that US e-commerce has grown 27.8 percent in the past year to $12.48bn -- that's some $50bn annually. And certainly, more than just a few of the half-billion people who are connected to the Internet have experienced streaming media. According to Nielsen/NetRatings, more than 72 percent of Internet users do more than just surf the Web, and popular Internet activities include watching video clips.

But streaming video and videoconferencing have not yet quite challenged the quality, simplicity or ubiquity of commercial television. Why?

Streaming media was born to deliver audio, then audio and video, over the Internet. As with many new technologies, it started with single-vendor proprietary techniques. This was the case in the early days of television, too. But since television involved the use of the public airways, the Federal Communications Commission was charged with establishing standards.

Happily, a standard emerged relatively quickly, and television has grown to the ubiquitous state we have today. One can only imagine how different the world would be if you had to purchase a different television set to view each channel or if only one vendor owned the dominant technology that's required to view public broadcasts.

The digital streaming media industry, without the benefit (or obstacle, depending on your point of view) of government mandate, faces the same issue. There are organisations that have not embraced open standards and continue to pursue proprietary video streaming technologies. Their argument is that with proprietary models, one company can make a more reliable, robust product that is easier to maintain -- for them.

But streaming media can only thrive if there one standard. It is now time to put an end to the "click here to view with this, that or the other player" -- not just to eliminate viewer confusion but also to reduce costs by eliminating the need for each streaming media content provider to host multiple systems.

Happily, robust multivendor standards and interoperability now exist, thanks to the Moving Picture Experts Group (MPEG), the Internet Streaming Media Alliance (ISMA) and the MPEG Industry Forum (MPEGIF).

MPEG is a working group of the International Organization for Standardization, which is in charge of the development of standards for compressed audio and video. Formed in 1988, it produced the MPEG-1 standard in 1992, widely used for video on CD and for broadband streaming. This was followed by the wildly successful MPEG-2 standard in 1994, which today allows Hollywood movies to fit on a DVD. It is also the basis for satellite and digital cable, and it is used throughout corporations and educational institutions to provide live one-way and two-way video over both local and wide-area networks.

In 1998, MPEG-4 was completed, and it provided a video compression standard at rates that target the public Internet. MPEG-4 licensing issues were settled in 2002, and commercial products are shipping in volume now.

MPEG-4 is an open standard. Open standards foster competition for the best implementation of the standard. The open-standards approach means that the standard has many more people who scrutinise one another's work than is possible from a single vendor, resulting in a more stable -- and ultimately more satisfactory -- result. Obviously, open standards help reduce the possibility that a single vendor could hold customers hostage. And this standard, MPEG-4, rivals the proprietary audio and video in terms of image quality and audio fidelity.

It's the bandwidth, stupid!
With the growing popularity of broadband, there is now an audience for downloaded video clips, and more importantly, for live video. The distinction is important. You can download a video file regardless of your connection speed -- it just might take longer if you are on an analog modem. But live video of news, sports, stock market analysis and events is becoming common, thanks to a critical mass of viewers that have higher bandwidth capabilities.

Conventional television exists under government licences because it uses the public airwaves. Cable systems are only slightly less restrictive, yet there is a gatekeeper at the distribution entry point -- you can't just hook up to cable and begin to broadcast as you can with streaming media on the public Internet.

With established streaming video standards and low distribution costs, virtually anyone can now become a "TV station" and deliver audio and video of a quality that rivals that of conventional television broadcasters. The Food Channel may now have to compete with The Coin Collector's Channel or The 52-Year-Old Bald and Fat Man's Channel, along with thousands more.

This micro-segmentation is well under way, and standards have only accelerated it.

Rich Mavrogeanes is the founder and president of VBrick Systems, which specialises in streaming video solutions.