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Apple creeps toward MPEG-4

Critics are describing QuickTime's pace in releasing long-promised MPEG-4 support as nothing short of glacial, but Apple may answer those critics at a gathering next week.

It's not easy living with your board of directors--though on second thought, it might have kept Enron executives out of so much trouble.

In my case, however, it means a constant blurring of that important line between the personal and the professional. This week it started getting on my nerves.

"Don't touch that jar of mayonnaise!" barked my 12-year-old son Vermel, chairman of the Rumor Mill's board, as I rummaged through the fridge. "If you gain any more weight, it's going to make a mockery of our brand."

So maybe I'm not living up to my name these days. But who is? QuickTime, for example, is famous for having been slow as molasses (also forbidden on the Vermel diet) to get its Internet act together, dithering about while RealNetworks and Microsoft went full stream ahead--and right past Apple--with RealPlayer and Windows Media Player. Now critics are describing QuickTime's pace in releasing long-promised MPEG-4 support as nothing short of glacial.

Rumor has it that Apple plans to answer those critics at next week's QuickTime gathering in Beverly Hills.

"One of the key announcements will be that QuickTime 5.1 will support MPEG-4," said our Skinformant. "Looks like they'll have to rely on open standards to finally realize the promise of QuickTime Interactive."

QuickTime may be behind in the streaming race, but in advance of QuickTimeLive, Apple is trumpeting new figures that suggest it could be catching up. QuickTime had 80 million new downloads in 2001, while RealNetworks only saw 75 million for its RealOne and RealPlayer players, Apple boasted in a press release Thursday.

As I write, I can almost feel the crosshairs of trigger-happy Apple fanatics tickling the back of my head. Legend has it that MPEG-4 is based on QuickTime, despite recent debunkings from MPEG-4 experts.

Apple itself has been pledging for nearly a year that QuickTime would support MPEG-4. The announcement originally came at an NAB convention in April 2001, when the company demonstrated a preview edition of QuickTime with some MPEG-4 support.

But since then, the final release has been stuck in the lab. Meanwhile, RealNetworks jumped onboard the MPEG-4 bandwagon, leaving Microsoft the odd man out with its partial and proprietary adoption of the open standard.

"Apple (last year) said they needed to wait for licensing to release it," Rob Koenen, chairman of the MPEG Requirements Group, explained in an e-mail interview with the Rumor Mill. "Now licensing for MPEG-4 Visual was recently announced to become available soon. The Big Question is: Are the licensing terms such that Apple will take out a license? I do not think that the licensing is such that the answer is obvious; there is some concern over its viability."

Apple, which is preparing to accept a Grammy later this month for its technical contributions to music, could not be reached for comment.

Meanwhile, reports have surfaced that the company has indulged in some retail therapy of late, picking up Nothing Real, which sells high-end visual effects and post-production software.

"It's clearly an effort to extend the penetration into higher-end video they've made with Final Cut Pro," noted one multimedia Skinsider. "What's up with these guys? Do they really aspire to be the next Avid?"

Boilerplate warriors
Despite last week's rumors of high-tech media companies starting up right and left, most of my peers remain unemployed. Having apparently given up on journalism--and who can blame them?--several have banded together to improve the lot of those of us still saddled with jobs.

Their goal is to eradicate the unreadable jargon that high-tech reporters are force-fed by armies of PR flacks and other people with degrees in communications (sic!).

Launched by self-described "starving tech writer refugees from Interactive Week," the Business Writers Group, located in Falls Church, Va., will crank out white papers, annual reports and the unspeakable press releases so familiar to them from their days as toner-stained wretches.

"After years of being reporters and editors, we've seen how poorly some tech companies present themselves when it comes to the written word," the group's president wrote in an e-mail to my employer, CNET News.com. "Many have been duped by flashy PR and marketing communications companies that charge big bucks and hand the copywriting to clueless junior associates. The results, as you know, can range from obtuse to unintelligible."

That does seem like a waste of money--my results range from obtuse to unintelligible, and I write the column all by myself.

Be my clueless junior assistant. Send me your rumors.