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Wireless forum works toward streaming standards

Concerned that numerous standards groups are building a Tower of Babel for wireless streaming media, a new forum is pushing a blueprint it hopes will prevail over dominant proprietary technologies.

Concerned that numerous standards groups are building a Tower of Babel for wireless streaming media, a new forum is pushing a blueprint it hopes will prevail over dominant proprietary technologies.

The Wireless Multimedia Forum (WMF), a consortium whose members include Cisco Systems, Intel and the Walt Disney Internet Group, says its primary concern is that wireless streaming products will not work with each other despite an intense amount of activity toward standards development.

Although the forum does not include streaming heavyweights RealNetworks or Microsoft, members are confident that the open standards it promotes will carry the day over those market leaders' technologies.

That confidence is based on the premise that wireless carriers--some of whom are WMF members--will be in a position to tell handset manufacturers which technologies will stream over their networks. In contrast to the desktop environment, where Microsoft brings to bear its operating system monopoly and RealNetworks its huge installed base of players, the forum expects the wireless world to favor open standards that have the potential to reach the widest array of wireless devices.

"It's pretty standard in the telecom world that a standard be put in place so everyone can interoperate," said Jim Brailean, president of PacketVideo, a WMF member. "Whenever a carrier launches a new service, it says you have to deliver something that conforms to this standard. The carrier is going to specify a way to do streaming."

But one analyst questioned whether wireless carriers will exercise such control over what streams through their networks.

"Yes, the wireless networks will be the delivery mechanism," conceded Jane Zweig, senior vice president with Herschel Shosteck Associates, a wireless research company. "But will wireless operators be--and why should they be--in control of what content goes over their networks? Wireless carriers can decide some of that, and they believe they can control their networks, but in an open network, we know that isn't really possible."

Even if wireless carriers don't shut out proprietary technologies in favor of open streaming standards, Microsoft and RealNetworks will face other challenges in translating the desktop success to the wireless arena as such streaming brings new constrictions and demands.

"Content or the user experience on wireless is not the same as in the wire-line world," Brailean said. "It's a very different experience than the desktop, with different ways you want to provide material to the users. Microsoft and RealNetworks have very entrenched positions in the wire-line world delivering content and a certain user experience. But this is completely different for both the applications and the content."

Big plans
Scheduled for publication Jan. 15, the WMF's Recommended Technical Framework Document (RTFD) lays out a comprehensive recommendation on what standards should apply throughout the wireless streaming session, from content creation to transport over the Internet to retrieval by consumers. The forum has posted the document's introductory materials on its Web site.

Organizations in the WMF's sights include the Third Generation Partnership Project and Third Generation Partnership Project 2, the MPEG-4 Industry Forum, the WAP Forum's multimedia experts group, and the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF). Some of these organizations are submitting their work to still more standards bodies, including the International Organization for Standardization and the International Telecommunication Union.

The WMF says there are as many as 10 more organizations it will attempt to influence.

"The WMF has been somewhat quiet in 2000 but is about to explode on the scene with the release of the RTFD," Nancy Moss, program director for the WMF, said in an email interview. "Member companies plan to influence standards bodies and the industry with its recommendation. They also plan to take these recommendations and incorporate them into their products."

The WMF is one of two new streaming media forums straddling the line between standards organization and advocacy group. The Internet Streaming Media Alliance (ISMA), which launched this month, was an offshoot of the WMF, which launched in March.

Technology for streaming media over wireless networks is barely in its infancy, with a handful of intrepid start-ups facing down the skepticism of critics who say the idea is too far ahead of wireless networks' current capacities.

But that has done little to hinder the proliferation of standards efforts as companies strive to make their mark on the emerging technology, or to discourage desktop streaming companies from making their own forays into the wireless streaming arena. RealNetworks and Nokia this summer inked a deal to install RealNetworks' streaming software in Nokia's devices for rudimentary streaming capabilities.

View from the top
Like the WMF and ISMA, standards bodies form working groups composed of representatives from member companies, and in many cases a company will have a representative in both the forum and the standards organization.

But founders say the separate group with a more overarching strategic approach is required to help steer the direction of the technology and to put together disparate parts of the streaming process.

"We're a little different from a standards body," said Phil Graham, director of engineering at the Cisco Technology Center. "Beyond their work, the next thing you need is interoperation of products. The standards bodies don't really work on that. They let companies pick and choose between them. We support these bodies--they're absolutely crucial to the industry. But then you need companies to pick the right standards and create products that actually interoperate."

Although Microsoft and RealNetworks are eschewing membership in the WMF for the time being, the forum says its invitation remains open to the streaming giants--and the companies ignore the forum at their own cost.

"I personally think they have a lot of experience and are welcome in the forum," Brailean said. "They're missed, but definitely the work goes on and there are a lot of experts out there who have tons of experience and are moving forward. Meanwhile, (Microsoft and RealNetworks) will potentially lose the opportunity to influence the forum and the recommendations made by the forum."

RealNetworks has said it is actively considering joining the ISMA, but Thursday it said it is not considering membership in the WMF "at this time."

"We are fully supportive of wireless media, and we're glad to see forums like this that are committed to those same purposes," said RealNetworks spokesman Joe Cerrell. "But the fact is that this is a trade group, and there are a lot of trade groups, and we just can't join all of them."

Cerrell noted that RealNetworks supports some streaming protocols, including the IETF's Realtime Streaming Protocol (RTSP) and the World Wide Web Consortium's Synchronized Multimedia Integration Language (SMIL), a Web standard that Microsoft had a key role in shaping.

Microsoft declined to comment on the WMF or its own wireless streaming efforts. But in reference to its nonparticipation in the ISMA, the company said last week that although it supports standards in general, it doesn't think standards can keep up with the pace of change in the streaming media arena.

Herschel Shosteck Associates' Zweig said Microsoft's approach to the WMF had a clear precedent in its initial resistance to the WAP Forum.

"Microsoft kept saying they didn't believe they needed to join the WAP Forum, but for political reasons they couldn't afford to not be part of a club that supported the wireless industry," Zweig said. "They needed to get involved and aligned with those key companies. I don't think (not joining the WMF now) is going to hurt them. This is standard Microsoft."

After publishing its RTFD on Jan. 15, the WMF will convene its working groups in San Diego from Jan. 29 to Jan. 31 and hold its annual general member meeting at the Internet World Wireless trade show in New York Feb. 22 and Feb. 23. The forum has scheduled interoperability testing of its RTFD for March.

In addition to Cisco, Intel, Disney and PacketVideo, the WMF's 52 members include Hitachi, Lucent, Matsushita, Mitsubishi, Nortel Networks, Openwave Systems, Samsung, Sprint PCS, AT&T Wireless, Texas Instruments and Stardust.com.