Life In ISO

Life In ISO

A free translation of the fake Latin proverb “Homo homini lupus, femina feminae lupior, sacerdos sacerdoti lupissimus” could go like this: man behaves like a wolf toward another man, a woman behaves with another woman in a more ferocious way than a man with another man, and a priest behaves with another priest in an even more ferocious way. 

Of course the proverb should not be taken too literally. The meaning is that, while men are prone to be physically aggressive toward other men as wolves are (or are thought to be) between themselves, women can be more aggressive toward other women, but in a more intellectual than physical fashion and priests can be even more aggressive with one another, of course only in a context where there are different opinions on how to act “ad maiorem Dei gloriam”. 

The third part of this proverb may find application to the members of this huge organisation called ISO. I must make a disclaimer, though. I am singling out ISO, not because it is a place of more ferocious battles than other bodies, but simply because MPEG operates within it and I have a longer experience of it than of other bodies. 

When, in January 1988, JTC 1/SC 2/WG 8 established the three experts groups JBIG, JPEG and MPEG, the matter did not escape the watchful attention of the British Standards Institute (BSI), the UK National Body. They immediately circulated a document within SC 2 requesting a discussion on that matter at the following SC 2 meeting. 

It is not known what prompted BSI to behave in this way, but the matter was resolved at the SC 2 meeting in June 1988 thanks to the strong intervention of Dara Hekimi, then the Secretary General of the European Computer Manufacturers Association (ECMA) and an influential SC 2 figure at that time. During the same meeting, the three WG 8 Experts Groups had their terms of reference endorsed and, in the case of MPEG, enlarged to read “Coding of Moving Pictures and Associated Audio and their Combinations for Digital Storage Media”. This was achieved because I had attended that SC 2 meeting as Italian representative with Hiroshi Yasuda to provide a larger number of National Bodies supporting the WG 8 move – just in case. 

The “Associated Audio” part was more or less silently resented by Audio experts for several years. In the CCIR a group was even formed with the title “Audio and Associated Video”. At the Dallas meeting in November 1995, “Associated” was finally removed from the title of MPEG, much to the relief of the Audio group.

When I had started gathering people with the goal of developing audio coding alongside video coding, Hiroshi and I had considered the possibility that the IEC, which had a consolidated presence in the area of audio and had already issued digital audio standards for CD and Digital Audio Tape (DAT), might already have started work on compression coding of digital audio. The two of us then went to Eindhoven (then Philips-city) to meet with Kurt Herrmann of Philips who acted as secretary for IEC SC 60A, the IEC Subcommittee in charge of audio recording, and learned that they had indeed in mind to do work on the subject, but concrete plan for it had yet to be hatched. This was taken as an implicit “go ahead” for the audio coding activity in MPEG. 

At the WG 8 meeting in Kurihama, the Multimedia and Hypermedia Experts Group (MHEG) was established. Francis Kretz explained his vision of multimedia enabled by a common technology applicable across a large number of domains, using very much the same generic approach that MPEG had taken for audio and video. A New Proposal (NP) request for a new standard was made at Kurihama and approved at JTC 1 level a few months later. Then the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), which also holds the JTC 1 Secretariat, saw this NP as a competing technology to what SC 18 Document Processing and Related Communication was doing with their Open Document Architecture (ODA) on audio and video added to textual information. In an unprecedented move, JTC 1 overruled the results of the MHEG NP ballot and convened an “Ad-hoc Technical Study Group on Multimedia and Hypermedia” in New York (mid-December 1990). The recommendation of that ad hoc group was to split the MHEG NP in two parts, one assigned to SC 18 and the other to WG 8. The part assigned to SC 18 (actually SC 18 itself) went nowhere.

In the meantime, the combined size of WG 8 and its Experts Groups (EG) was steadily increasing and I thought that the importance of the technology that WG 8 handled justified the promotion of WG 8 to Subcommittee. At that time Hiroshi’s position in NTT did not allow him enough freedom to attend all the various international meetings where the proposal to create a new SC on Video, Audio, Multimedia and Hypermedia was on the agenda. I had no such limitation and could attend all environments in which the issues of the new SC were discussed .

At the Washington, DC meeting of SC 2 in April 1991 a coalition of National Bodies approved the secession of WG 8 from SC 2, much to the relief of the SC 2 old guard who had been working for decades splitting character coding hairs and had no interest in a group working on these strange new technologies that had to do with such alien and unstructured information types as audio and video. The WG 8 Experts Groups were elevated to WG level and became WG 9 (JBIG), WG 10 (JPEG), WG 11 (MPEG) and WG 12 (MHEG) with WG 8 retaining a “coordination” role. So the premises for the creation of a subcommittee were laid down but, in a world of (virtual) wolves (or, maybe, priests), this interim situation could have prompted another SC to hijack the activity. 

Fortunately the NB of Japan took the matter to heart and finally, in November 1991, at the time of the second Kurihama meeting, the new SC 29 was established, with Information Technology Standards Committee of Japan (ITSCJ), the JTC 1 NB of Japan, as the Secretariat and Hiroshi Yasuda as Chairman. The four new SC 2 WGs  were moved to SC 29. Later WG 9 and WG 10 merged and the combined working group was called WG 1. Today WG 12 no longer exists as its original mandate has been accomplished. 

In the meantime JTC 1 gave itself the rule that the JTC 1 Chair and SC Chairs could hold only two three-year terms of office. Hiroshi stepped down in June 1998 and was replaced by Hiroshi Watanabe, at that time also with NTT and now with the University of Waseda and in 2006 by Kotaro Asai of Mitsubishi, an active MPEG member.