Apple and a raft of high-tech heavyweights join forces to promote open standards in the divided world of streaming media, but market leaders aren't playing ball yet.
The Internet Streaming Media Alliance (ISMA) launched "in an effort to accelerate the market adoption of open standards for streaming rich media over Internet Protocol (IP)," the nonprofit organization said this week. Though its core members include Apple, Cisco Systems, Kasenna, Philips and Sun Microsystems, observers doubt whether the group can achieve its goals without Microsoft's and RealNetworks' participation.
"There certainly is a need for more leadership in fomenting standards in the streaming media space, but...who knows if this is going to be the one to provide that leadership?" said Ben Elstein, an analyst with Aberdeen Group. "These are good companies with good technologies, but this isn't Real and Microsoft linking arms."
Another analyst put the matter more flatly.
"Those two should be involved with any alliance that's going to be setting standards," said Jarvis Mak, an analyst with NetRatings. "It's going to be awhile before you see any consensus in the industry."
Neither RealNetworks nor Microsoft has ruled out joining the ISMA. RealNetworks said Thursday that it was "actively evaluating" whether to join.
But Microsoft expressed skepticism of the group's mission and said it was taking a "wait-and-see" approach to membership.
Microsoft has long been at the center of standards activity for Web browsers and other technologies, including some relevant to the streaming media industry.
Open standards have sometimes proved a boon for challengers seeking to dethrone established industry leaders. Many attribute Microsoft's conquest of the browser market partly to its ability to use World Wide Web Consortium standards to build a product that could compete with Netscape Communications' dominant browser.
But in the case of streaming media, Microsoft is taking a different tack, saying standards bodies are ill-equipped to handle the demands of this market.
"We've been a leader in Internet standards technology, and we're strong believers in standards," said Dave Fester, general manager of Microsoft's digital media division. "But in the extremely fast pace of digital media, standards can't keep up. And if you can't innovate fast enough to meet consumers' needs, the standards effort probably won't cut it."
"At this juncture we're going to do a wait-and-see," Fester said. "We're not going to join the alliance, and we're going to keep our eyes and ears open. If some standard does take off, we'll reconsider."
The audio and video push
The alliance represents a second attempt by Apple to jump-start its flagging streaming media efforts through an open technology environment. Last year, the company put parts of its QuickTime streaming software into open-source development in an attempt to stimulate adoption of the format.
Apple enjoyed an early entry into the market for audio and video on the Internet but found itself overcome by the rise of RealNetworks and aggressive competition from Microsoft. Now it's hoping to make advances by pushing standards.
"I believe that the combination of the people in the ISMA are responsible for enough of the Internet's infrastructure, standards evolution and formats so that a whole new level of interoperability will become evident as these companies continue to work together over time," said Frank Casanova, director of QuickTime product marketing. "These members are incredible stakeholders in moving standards forward. They have enough resources, position and power to make a major difference in Internet streaming over time."
The alliance launches amid a convoluted array of standards efforts already under way with streaming media.
RealNetworks counters Microsoft's argument that standards are impractical in the streaming media industry by noting its own adherence to the transport standards, RTP and RTSP, ratified by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF).
Another standard with relevance to streaming media is Synchronized Multimedia Integration Language, which has Microsoft's fingerprints conspicuously on it.
The first standard the new alliance will target is MPEG-4, an audio and video compression format that has been adopted by the International Standards Organization and endorsed by several computer hardware, peripheral and consumer electronics manufacturers.
The ISMA's role in promoting MPEG-4 and other standards remains unclear. The group's articles of incorporation say the alliance will "define, establish, revise, and support specification(s) that contribute to the development of interoperable, efficient, end-to-end solutions that promote or facilitate streaming rich media over the Internet as well as over private networks, and to foster the voluntary and rapid adoption of the specifications by developers of related products and services."
But one key member denied that the group considered itself a standards body per se.
"This is not a standards body," said Satish Menon, chief technology officer of Kasenna. "We're not going to be creating any new standards. All we're trying to do is agree on a specific set of specifications that everyone can follow."
Menon countered Microsoft's contention that standards cannot move fast enough to keep up with the digital media industry, saying that only a standardized and interoperable system will allow the streaming industry to move fast enough.
"We're not doing anything to dampen innovation," Menon said. "Unless we agree on standardized protocols, the adoption rate will be much, much too slow."
Menon expressed optimism about the alliance's prospects despite its launching without the support of Microsoft or RealNetworks.
"I think we expect to have success in delivering on the promise of a standards-based implementation if we get enough traction," Menon said. "The invitation is open to them, and they're evaluating it. We expect to have very good success in rallying around our theme on openness."