Philips, Sun Push MPEG-4

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MPEG-4's adoption as a streaming-media format gained momentum when Royal Philips Electronics N.V. and Sun Microsystems Inc. said they would collaborate on products based on that standard.

The Moving Picture Expert Group-based video compression format promises to render media at lower bit rates than its streaming cousin, MPEG-2.

Riding a wave of support for MPEG-4, Phillips intends to bring content based on the standard to cable operators for use in a variety of applications. The company has already forged digital set-top deals with AT&T Broadband and United Pan-Europe Communications N.V.

Progress has also been made toward an MPEG-4 patent pool, which in theory would help spark the creation of encoded content based on that standard.

Sun and Philips-waving the open-standards banner in a sector dominated by proprietary formats from Microsoft Corp., RealNetworks Inc., and Apple Computer Inc.-have staged a demonstration in which MPEG-4 content is streamed from a Sun Enterprise server running Sun's Media Central platform and its Solaris operating system to client software that includes Philips' WebCine MPEG-4 player.

Sun has also created a Java Media Framework (JMF) and an API (application programming interface) for media playback in a Java environment that includes MPEG-4 content, said Sun market development manager for broadband and digital media Rob Glidden.

The demonstration and subsequent sharing of technical expertise is "a commitment of both companies for supporting the standard and working on a common end-to-end platform," said Ahmad Ouri, vice president and general manager of MP4Net, a unit of Philips Digital Networks. Philips has both consumer-electronics expertise and significant MPEG-4 intellectual properties.

"Philips does own a substantial portfolio of patents that are relevant to MPEG-4," Ouri said.

The Dutch manufacturer has used its know-how to develop MPEG-4 encoder and decoder authoring and playback software, as well as streaming server software.

Philips is ready to bring its MPEG-4 wherewithal to the cable industry, Ouri said. MPEG-4 content has been demonstrated on nonshipping versions of the company's digital set-top.

"We are in discussions with our customers that are very interested in MPEG-4 for VOD (video-on-demand) applications and enhanced program guide applications," Ouri said, though he wouldn't name names.

Last year, a former AT&T executive called for cable to adopt MPEG-4 rather than add support for multiple streaming platforms to advanced digital set-tops. AT&T was not available for comment about its current MPEG-4 plans.

"We see MPEG-4 playing similar role (in IP networks) as MPEG-2 played in digital broadcasting," said Ouri. MPEG-4 "widens the scope of content delivery beyond the PC and set-top box."

Philips is involved in "deep discussions with major content owners in North America and Europe" about authoring content in the MPEG-4 format using its encoding technology, Ouri noted.

There are several content-delivery models enabled by MPEG-4, noted Ouri, including the dowloading of movie trailers, financial news and other content from a set-top box to a personal digital assistant (PDA), via the Bluetooth wireless protocol.

Though MPEG-4 isn't likely to replace MPEG-2-based video systems, Glidden said the more advanced format is suitable for video-on-demand, an idea Sun has shopped around to cable operators.

Current MPEG-2-based VOD vendors use "multiple proprietary hooks and glue to their overall solutions," he said. "They are not interoperable amongst each other."

But before multivendor MPEG-4-based encoders and decoders can be brought to market, patent issues must be resolved.

The "call for essential patents" for MPEG-4's visual aspects has been completed, said Rob Koenen, president of the MPEG-4 industry forum. Now, a third party is evaluating those patents and patent holders are in discussions.

A similar call has been issued with respect to MPEG-4's audio elements; the process for those system components is beginning.

Forum members are also discussing how to conduct interoperability tests among themselves, said Koenen. The group may move forward with either self-certification or third-party certification, he said.

"I think it's very important that we demonstrate interoperability," said Koenen.

The group is considering a publicly recognizable logo or certificate of interoperability, he said.

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