Compression's Same New Difference


To hear iVast Inc. or Envivio Inc. tell it, each has the best MPEG-4 compression solution for broadband delivery systems.

Pixonics, a Silicon Valley start-up with deep Hollywood connections, says its Moving Picture Experts Group solution goes beyond the others and is ideal for high-definition compression, starting with DVDs and moving on to cable and satellite services.

And Microsoft Corp. claims its Windows Media Player 9 offers the most rugged and/or versatile H.264 compression scheme, and it is wooing Hollywood to prove it.

Not ready yet

They're all talking about the same thing. Sort of.

Actually, the only thing that these vendors and other next-generation compression hopefuls agree upon is that it will be several years before MPEG-4 Part 10 — or MPEG-4 AVC [advanced video coding], as some call it — or H.264, or both, reach the market.

The first applications for this technology may be HDTV video-on-demand, which makes its gestation even more attractive.

Real-time videoconferencing compression — an initial target for H.264 — may trigger adoption. In early tests, it handled compression at nearly 1 Megabit per second, encouraging dreamers who want to pump huge video files through the Internet, including Internet protocol TV. It sounds so multifunctional!

Before this gets any more confusing — and there's plenty of time for that — it's worth noting that these compression standards are coming from a committee called the "Joint Video Team."

JVT includes engineers from the International Telecommunications Union and from the International Engineering Consortium (or International Electrotechnical Commission) on behalf of the MPEG.

The first bunch of techies brought their H.264 standard, optimized for telecom compression, while the latter had the format and tools of video-centric MPEG-4 for broadcast, cable and consumer-electronics platforms.

Not surprisingly, JVT was months behind in delivering its consensus report late last year. And its final agreement — scheduled for right about now — is still a work in progress.

No chipmaker will start designing silicon until those standards are cast in stone, leading to a new vision that MPEG-4 could be implemented in software. Sure.

Despite the chaos, set-top box makers and MSOs are beginning to explore the technology, although they acknowledge that they're in no hurry to make decisions – even though the MPEG-4/H.264 will foster better bandwidth usage for HDTV, games and even voice and videophone services.

A top Scientific-Atlanta Inc. technologist believes that format's efficiency — it uses one-third the bandwidth of today's compressed streams — makes it attractive for interactive multimedia, and allows for lower cost per stream that supports multiple codecs for video and audio.

But that's where the competitive differentiation threatens to slow the adoption process, as various vendors seek to establish themselves before a standard takes hold.

For example, iVast is working with hardware makers to develop an integrated STB – a reference design that can handle audio, video and graphics decoding, including live telecasts and VOD.

WM9 best for web?

Envivio — backed substantially by France Telecom and Intel Corp., which are among its major customers (along with Real Networks Inc., Canal Plus and NTT DoCoMo) — is promoting its VOD capability, and citing independent lab tests that show H.264's "50% to 60% improvement in bit-rate reduction" for cable, satellite and telecom network distribution.

Microsoft is pushing its Windows Media 9 into the market before MPEG-4 AVC becomes a standard.

Some contend WM9 is better suited to Web video — which, of course, lets Microsoft exploit the growing interest in IP TV. That plays to Microsoft's strengths, although not necessarily to the benefit of cable operators. Experts who are watching the process closely aren't sure how soon WM9 will reach HD quality.

So how far away are we from MPEG-4 deployment?

Pace sees interest

Mass silicon production may start by year-end, but it will be years until boxes reach the home. Pace Micro Electronics plc, which is eyeing H.264 — especially for its IP set-top hardware — expects "a good chance we'll see [silicon] in the next 18 months." A Pace technology executive confirmed that MSOs are "very interested in using it" for VOD and HDTV.

Motorola Inc. says, "We're strong backers of standards-based compression," but isn't yet backing any of the MPEG-4 or H.264 suppliers.

A decade ago, in the development of the MPEG-2 format, chipmakers did not start cranking out microprocessors until standards were locked. A similar process is likely for MPEG-4.

Cable operators — and Internet and telecom carriers — are waiting for proof that any of this will be cost-justified in an environment which is still absorbing MPEG-2 equipment. And despite expectations that MPEG-4/H.264 marks a "real step forward" for HD and other attractive services, the industry doesn't appear ready for the great leap.

If it can even figure out what the competing vendors are selling — or which flavor to try.

Contributing curmudgeon Gary Arlen mans the I-Way patrol for Broadband Week.