Riding the Media Bits

Last update: 2011/08/21

Riding the media bits



End of the MPEG ride?


MPEG played a major role in creating the new world of Digital Media Technologies. Does it still have a role to play?

In an endeavour like MPEG any time is a good time to ask the question: does MPEG still have a role to play? I can see three reasons why it may be a good idea to (plan to) end this quarter-of-a-century long ride on the media bits. The first is that, after a certain period of time, organisations tend to become sclerotic, bureaucratic, procedure-driven. In other words they tend to forget their raison d'être by confusing the means to reach the goal with the goal itself, they become incapable of reinventing themselves and do not look at the world with the same curiosity and drive they had when they were first established. The second could be that much has changed in the last 18 years and the recipes that were good 18, 15, 10 and maybe even 5 years ago do not necessarily keep their validity today. Lastly there may not be enough work left to produce standards to justify the existence of the group.

I do not think that a  new body with a mandate similar to MPEG's would be an advantage. MPEG has a recognised brand, a considerable experience and an established work method. Dissolving MPEG and creating a new group would mean that many industry users would lose a reference while the new group would have to fight for recognition in a sea of competing groups, all marketing their results as the solution for the needs of the Digital Media industry at large, when they are in fact, in most cases, at best solutions targeted to a specific industry.

I also do not think MPEG is a sclerotic organisation. Let's first consider the membership. At every new major MPEG project, waves of new participants have come one after another to replace portions of previous generations of participants. Today less than 5% of regular meeting participants have been in MPEG for more than 10 years and the oldest participant is, ahem, the Convenor, followed by Takuyo Kogure of Panasonic whose first meeting was London in September 1988 Ajay Luthra of Motorola whose first meeting was Livingston, NJ in February 1989 . All chairs have changed more than once. Maybe a quarter of current participants have been in MPEG for less than a year. 

Let's now consider how vital the group has been in reinventing its role. Starting with MPEG-1 and MPEG-2 from a traditional approach to solve the needs of rather traditional users, with MPEG-4 MPEG has been able, certainly not to "forecast" the future, but at least to create future-proof technologies that are gradually being adopted as open solutions for communication over the unstructured world of the fixed and mobile Internet. Remarkably, MPEG serves new constituencies, without stopping to cater for the needs of its older constituencies. With MPEG-7, it has anticipated the needs of the next phase of media experience and with MPEG-21 it has provided the technologies that can conjugate civil and economic rights. Sclerotic? I do not think MPEG is sclerotic.

Let's now consider the worst that can happen to human organisations, i.e. to stop being driven by a sense of mission and start being driven by procedures instead. This sentence should not be taken to mean disdain for the rules. A body like MPEG, producing standards with such impacts on manifold industries and end users cannot afford to be loose in the way it performs its function. But it is one thing to concentrate on procedure and forget about the content of the work and another to be driven by the work and make sure that procedures are upheld to high standards to the satisfaction of all parties involved.

Hoping that the first test has been passed, let's consider the second, i.e. whether MPEG is still a match to the current challenges. It is true that the last 20 years have brought an incredible amount of changes. Audio and video used to be the realm of a restricted number of industries, while now almost any industry claims to have a stake in Digital Media. Standards used to be bound to rigid hardware implementations while now standards have to deal with the fact that their implementations are by and large pieces of computer code. Indeed, to get to the point it is now, MPEG has had to change its skin several times. From MPEG-1 and MPEG-2 where software was a development tool, to MPEG-4, where software was elevated to the rank of tool to express the standard itself, to MPEG-7 which is definitely an IT standard although developed to serve the needs of the AV industry, to MPEG-21 which is more a framework than a traditional standard, MPEG has been able to adapt itself to continuously changing environments. A side issue as it may be considered, MPEG has changed its working methods much before any other group to augment its productivity and was probably the first group of its size to make massive use of advanced ICT in standard development.

This should not be taken to mean that MPEG has already adapted itself so much that it can now take some rest. Far from it. Challenges abound and discussions are being made on how to cope with the most important of them:

  1. MPEG has evolved to address a wide range of technologies. Each of these require a high degree of in-depth expertise, but the different technologies are not independent. How can MPEG retain its ability to develop standards that are individually high-level and still fit perfectly in a complex picture? The response to this question is still through an intense network of joint meetings between different groups to draw from the necessary expertise and to hear all concerns of the different groups involved.
  2. MPEG has traditionally produced standards rich in functionalities but with a rather high entry level. This was the right thing to do in times when the media market was "rich" (in money). Today, however, the Digital Media landscape does not offer often much fat and in many domains users tend to be content with quick and dirty solutions. How can MPEG recover these customers without abdicating its traditional role? One answer is the creation of entry-level use cases for each standard.
  3. The practical exploitation of the MPEG standards is becoming difficult because of the conflict between the manifold ways users of the standards conceptualise their market exploitation models and the rather conservative approach that rights holders, some of them from "old" industries, take vis-à-vis the exploitation of their rights. As a matter of fact this is not something that MPEG is entitled to deal with, but it is clear that, unless some new ideas materialise, it is going to be more and more difficult for users to exploit MPEG standards (and in general open standards) and for rights holders to be remunerated for their IP.

The issue of how much need there is for a body like MPEG to cater to its digital media constituencies is my constant concern. If number is any guide I would say that going from an average number of 300 participants to nearly 500 like MPEG is experiencing is an indication that its role is still highly regarded.