The company said it will support the MPEG-4 standard in upcoming versions of its RealSystem iQ and RealOne media player products; in the interim, it will provide compatibility through plug-ins from partner Envivio.
In a move that could help the company's wireless efforts, RealNetworks also said it has joined the Third Generation Partnership Project (3GPP), a standards group aimed at setting technical specifications for third-generation mobile systems.
Standards advocates say MPEG-4 could offer interactive enhancements over current formats and greatly simplify the way digital audio and video is sent over the Internet--a process complicated by a bitter rivalry between RealNetworks and Microsoft.
In backing MPEG-4, however, industry experts said RealNetworks appeared less interested in helping the goals of interoperability than in bolstering its own position in wireless streaming, where carriers and device makers appear to be gravitating toward MPEG-4 over proprietary formats. The proposed standard would succeed MPEG-1 and MPEG-2, which fueled the MP3 Internet music revolution.
"This is an extremely big public change" for RealNetworks, said Bill Bernat, technology editor for Streaming Media, an industry research company. "It's a pretty big concession for them to say they need MPEG-4 this early on and that they need to be good at it."
Until now, Apple Computer and a raft of other technology heavyweights have led the public charge for MPEG-4, creating a trade group last year called the Internet Streaming Media Association (ISMA) to push for the standard. But neither RealNetworks nor Microsoft has joined the group, leading some observers to speculate that both would continue to back their own proprietary formats.
For its part, RealNetworks said it has long participated in MPEG standards discussions and has supported many formats as part of a policy of creating a universal technology.
"We've been pretty consistent in our position vis-a-vis MPEG-4," said Ben Rotholtz, RealNetworks' general manager for products and systems. "We've said all along we see MPEG-4 as another standard that we would support...Had we not supported it, it would have been a break in our policy of being a universal platform."
Support does not equal interoperability
Despite growing signs of support for MPEG-4, significant technical, licensing and marketing hurdles remain before it will gain traction to affect the streaming media scene.
Patent holders whose technologies were incorporated into MPEG-4 are in the process of hammering out nondiscriminatory licensing terms, a prerequisite for creating a landscape in which the technology is interoperable in more than name.
Rob Koenen, president of the MPEG-4 Industry Forum, said progress is being made, noting that Apple is poised to release an MPEG-4 compatible version of its QuickTime technology "within weeks."
Frank Cassanova, Apple's director of product marketing for QuickTime confirmed that the company has already released a version of QuickTime 5 to a handful of testers.
"We've seeded it to certain developers," he said, adding that the company welcomes RealNetworks' support for a format Apple has long boosted. "RealNetworks announcing support for MPEG-4 as the next standard in streaming media is an abrupt and significant change, and we're really happy they've jumped on the train," he said.
One area where MPEG-4 could have an immediate affect, experts say, is in wireless, which is gravitating quickly toward a single standard.
"The wireless and telecom industries are much more standards-oriented than the PC world," Koenen said. "There it's all about hardware. You can't just upgrade decoders every few months, and you can't afford to support a number of competing players on a handheld device."
Although RealNetworks already supports Apple's QuickTime format, adding support for MPEG-4 may help drive greater adoption of the standard. Whether that in itself will smooth over the streaming industry's deep divisions remains to be seen.
The difficulties of securing interoperability is illustrated by Microsoft, which has implemented a standards-compliant MPEG-4 video codec as part of its Windows Media technology but uses its own audio codec and a proprietary file format. That means it has essentially walled off its technology from the greater MPEG-4 community.
Michael Aldridge, lead product manager for Windows digital media division, said the company supports standards but has taken this approach because "customers have demanded more."
He said the company's in-house technology offers better quality and important enhancements such as anti-copying technology, known as digital rights management, that MPEG-4 does not currently offer.
This area in particular may cause lasting interoperability problems. Both RealNetworks and Microsoft have devoted considerable investment in creating proprietary copy-protection schemes and are unlikely to cooperate to allow both systems to work together.
RealNetworks' Rotholtz said the company has backed open standards for digital rights management (DRM) through initiatives such as XMCL, a protocol based on XML aimed at creating a lingua franca for content security and e-commerce. But he added that MPEG-4 has not yet come up with a standard anti-copying technology, which could muddy the waters.
MPEG-4's Koenen said DRM has long been recognized as a potential problem for interoperability. "It is not something that will happen overnight," he said. "Creating interoperability between DRM solutions is a hard problem to solve."