By Robert Batchelder, Gartner Analyst
There's no question that MPEG-4 is going to succeed MPEG-2 as the standard for streaming digital video.
Faster processor speeds and cheap (already less than $200) video capture and playback cards will help promote much wider use of video on the desktop. MPEG-4 will help open up new business opportunities for Internet-enabled video distribution as the new standard is used to broadcast over corporate LANs and
consumer broadband connections. However, for a variety of technical reasons, the Internet has a very long way to go before end-to-end delivery of video streams offers the same quality as traditional broadcast systems.
Gartner believes that all vendors will eventually adopt the new MPEG-4 standard because it is well-suited to on-demand digital video distribution and desktop use. Microsoft's remarks about the supposed technical superiority of its video-compression technology are best viewed while keeping in mind that this is a company struggling to establish its proprietary digital video distribution standard to further its own technological and economic ambitions.
MPEG-4 will be backward-compatible with MPEG-2, the video-compression standard used on billions of DVDs and millions of satellite receivers. It seems disingenuous for Microsoft to suggest that the successor to a standard that has been an overwhelming success with people viewing video in their living rooms will be unsatisfactory for use on smaller computer screens.
Mention should be made of Steve Jobs, Apple Computer's visionary leader, who has been ahead of the curve on the whole subject of video on the desktop. Apple's iMac, featuring advanced desktop video editing, demonstrates what will become standard capabilities for the coming generation of Pentium-4-based PCs. Jobs foresaw that video would become just another file type on the desktop. With MPEG-4, that vision is poised to became a reality in the larger PC world.
This doesn't mean, as some people have supposed, that within a year or two we will all be downloading and swapping 30-minute television shows and feature-length films on our PCs. The sheer size of compressed video files means it's likely that short-format video--music videos, sports clips and so forth--will comprise most of what's downloaded and swapped.
That last word, swapped, leads to the real concern for content providers--security. Today, broadcast video that's captured and compressed using MPEG-4 software encoding is already being exchanged through peer-to-peer file-swapping systems. Content providers wishing to protect copyrighted material will have to integrate security into MPEG-4-compliant distribution systems.
RealNetworks and Microsoft have done so for their proprietary systems, but Gartner believes that companies that rely primarily on proprietary compression formats will ultimately fall out of the mainstream. For all but the most demanding applications, the world needs only one video-compression standard, and MPEG-4 is it.
(For a related commentary on the standards issues in the area of digital rights management, see Gartner.com.)
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