End of the MPEG ride?

End of the MPEG ride?

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 over-a-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 27 years and the recipes that were good 25, 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.

to address this question properly it is good to start from the very motivational roots of MPEG: MPEG’s mission is to produce global digital media standards with two main purposes:

  1. For end users to seamlessly exchange media information
  2. For industry to provide interoperable products, services and applications.

Maybe because of the social and industrial importance or the matters handled, MPEG is a “special” standards working group because:

  1. It has a running attendance of 300, sometimes up to 500, from some 25 countries
  2. Its experts represent all the digital media industries, especially not typical IT industries
  3. It has liaisons with some 50 organisations
  4. It is structured to deal with “all” aspects of media
  5. It produces timely standards (hundreds of deliverables so far) in response to anticipated industry needs
  6. It has been running for 26 years adapting its mind set as the digital media has evolved from a fledgling entity to an industry with a turnover of hundreds billion USD.

People seeking a tranquil life do not consider “being special” as necessarily a recommendation. Indeed one decision preferred by some managers is to reshuffle an environment after some time by disbanding groups and creating new ones. However, 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. Dissolving MPEG to create a host of group is a simplistic idea that will beget dire consequences: MPEG is not an umbrella under which different groups operate, but a tightly knit network of subgroups producing standards that demonstrably fit with each other. At every MPEG meeting tens of “joint meetings” between different subgroups are held to achieve a common understanding of issues, iron out differences and specify interfaces.

I 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 Ajay Luthra whose first meeting was Livingston, NJ in February 1989. Maybe a quarter of current participants have been in MPEG for less than a year. Finally all chairs have changed more than once.

Let’s now consider how the group managed to reinvent its role. In MPEG-1 and MPEG-2 (end of ’80s and first half of ’90s) MPEG adopted a traditional approach to solve the needs of rather traditional users, albeit using revolutionary – digital – technologies. Still it laid down some innovations that continue to this day such as the involvement of all industries overcoming the past barriers between industries, the collection of industry-wide requirements and, as a consequence, the profile approach designed to satisfy different needs with the same tool set. In the early MPEG-4 times (second half of the 1990s) MPEG has been able, certainly not to “forecast” the future, but at least to create future-proof technologies that were the first to target the use of audio-visual content for the unstructured world of fixed and mobile Internet. With MPEG-7 MPEG has created a container of standard technologies for the next phase of media experience and with MPEG-21 it has provided the technologies that can conjugate civil and economic rights. With MPEG-A MPEG has created “system standards” to enhance usability of its technologies. With MPEG-B, MPEG-C and MPEG-D MPEG has created containers for standard Systems, Video and Audio technologies to be filled “on demand”. With MPEG-V MPEG has anticipated by many years the needs that are surfacing today for Internet of Things (IoT) standards. With DASH MPEG has asserted the preeminence of “content” requirements over internet delivery. With MPEG-H MPEG has recreated the Systems, Video and Audio triad, so successful with MPEG-1 and MPEG-2, in the age of hybrid – broadcast and IP – delivery. From the organisational viewpoint the teaming up with ITU-T in the creation of single entities for video coding matters (the JVT and the JCTs) is another achievement. Finally the identification of a space for “Type 1” standards (i.e. standards that are expected to be exercised without payment of royalties) and the production of standards that are expected to have such features, is another achievement. In conclusion MPEG has been able to serve more and more new constituencies, without stopping to cater for the needs of its older constituencies.

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 driven by a vision 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 totaling a turnover of hundreds of billion USD 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. MPEG can claim it has achieved this difficult balance.

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 27 years have brought an incredible amount of changes, but MPEG has managed to adapt to each new context as demonstrated by the changing nature of the standards produced. 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 running on programmable devices. 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, to MPEG-V and MPEG-H – components for the converged industries – 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 and has continued improving its productivity tools.

This should not be taken to mean that MPEG has already adapted itself so much that it can now take some rest. probably the opposite: it must change even faster than it did so far, just because the environment keeps on changing faster. Here are some issues:

  1. Starting from “video coding” 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 of intertwined standards users? 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 a lot fat very often 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 configurations for each standard.
  3. The practical exploitation of 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 numbers are any guide I would say that going from an average number of 300 participants to nearly 500 like MPEG has experienced, specifically for the HEVC standard, is an indication that its role is still highly regarded and tends to justify my expectation that, if 100 years from now MPEG will not exist any more it will be because those running it at that time will not be up to the task of exploiting the potential of its area of work.