5.7 – Standards and uncertainty

What happens to a standard when it leaves MPEG? The answer is not so different from the answer to the question “what happens to a product when it leaves the assembly line?”. The market response to the company product or to the MPEG standard is anybody’s guess. Some products/standards are widely successful, some fare so and so, and some are simply rejected by the market. Companies deploy significant resources to allow them to put in place other strategies to reduce the number of failures, but it is a reality that even companies darling of the market stumble from time to time.

MPEG is no exception. Remember the famous phrase attributed to John Wanamaker: “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half”.

In How MPEG develops standards the MPEG process is described: once an idea is launched, context and objectives of the idea are identified; use cases submitted and analysed; requirements derived from use cases; and technologies proposed, validated for their effectiveness for eventual incorporation into the standard.

Some people complain that MPEG standards contain too many technologies supporting “non-mainstream” use cases. Such complaints are understandable but misplaced. MPEG standards are designed to satisfy the needs of different industries and what is a must for some, may well not be needed by others, a problem addressed by Profiles and Levels.

It is true that there are a few examples where some technologies in an otherwise successful standard get unused. Was adding such technologies a mistake? In hindsight yes, but at the time a standard is being developed the future is anybody’s guess and MPEG does not want to find out later that one of its standards misses a functionality that was deemed to be necessary in some use cases and that technology could support at the time the standard was developed.

For sure there is a cost in adding the technology to the standard – and this is borne by the companies proposing the technology – but there is no burden to those who do not need it because they can use another profile.

Let us see how MPEG has managed the uncertainty surrounding its standards by considering some examples.

  1. The MPEG-1 project was driven by the idea of video interactivity on CD and digital audio broadcasting. MPEG-1 did not have commercial success for both targets. However, Video CD, not even in the radar when MPEG-1 was started, used MPEG-1 and sold 1 billion units (and tens of billion CDs). MP3, too, was also not in the radar when MPEG-1 was approved and some members even argued against the inclusion of such a “complex” technology into the standard. I doubt there is anybody now regretting the decision to make MP3 part of the MPEG-1 standard. If there is, it is for completely different reasons. The reason why the standard was eventually successful is that MPEG-1 was designed as a system (VCD is exactly that), but its parts were designed to be usable as stand-alone components (as in MP3).
  2. The second case is MPEG-2. The project was driven by the idea of making television digital. When the first 3 MPEG-2 parts (Systems-Video-Audio) were consolidated, the possibility to use MPEG-2 for interactive video services on the telecom and cable networks became real. MPEG-2 Audio did not fare well in broadcasting (the demand for multichannel was also not there), but it did fare well in other domains. In any case many thought that MPEG-1 Audio delivered just enough. MPEG-2 AAC did fare well in broadcasting and laid the ground for the 20-year long MPEG-4 Audio ride. MPEG started the Digital Storage Media Command and Control (DSM-CC) standard (part 6 of MPEG-2) whose carousel is used in broadcasting because it provides the means for a set top box to access various types of information that a broadcaster sends/updates at regular intervals.
  3. MPEG-4 is rich in relevant examples.
    1. The MPEG-4 model was a 3D scene populated by “objects” that could be 1) static or dynamic, 2) natural or synthetic, 3) audio or visual in any combination. BIFS (the MPEG name for the 3D scene technology, an extension of VRML) did not fly (but VRML did not fly either). However, 10 years later the Korea-originated Digital Multimedia Broadcasting technology, which used BIFS scaled down to 2D, had a significant success in adding services to radio broadcasting.
    2. Much of the MPEG-4 visual work was driven by the idea of video “objects” which, along with BIFS, did not fly (the standard specified video objects but did not say how to make them, because that was an “encoder issue”). For a few years, MPEG-4 video was used in various environments. Unfortunately, the main intended of MPEG-4 Visual use – video streaming – was hampered by the “content fees” clause of the licensing terms that the target industry did not consider acceptable.
    3. On the other hand, Part 10 of MPEG-4 Advanced Video Coding (AVC) was very successful, especially because patent holders did not repeat some of the mistakes they had made for MPEG-4 Visual.
    4. None of the 3 Option 1 MPEG-4 video coding standards did fly, showing that in ISO today it is not practically possible to make a media-related standard that does not require onerous licensing of thirty party technologies.
    5. The MPEG-4 Audio Parametric coding for high-quality audio did not fly, but a particular tool in it – Parametric Stereo (PS) – could very efficiently encode stereo music as a mono signal plus a small amount of side-information. MPEG combined the PS tool with HE-AAC and produced HE-AAC v2, an audio decoder that is on board of billions of mobile handsets today as it enables transmission of a stereo signal at 32 kb/s with very good audio quality.

There is no recipe to design a guaranteed successful standard.

Table of contents 5.6 Standards are living beings 5.8 MPEG communicates