Paris Microsoft Corp.'s effort to shoulder its way into consumer electronics, movies and TV broadcasting worldwide by proposing its proprietary Windows Media Video 9 to the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers as an industry-standard codec seemed like a coup. But the standardization of WMV9 has not gone as smoothly as the software giant expected. The process, begun last year, appears bogged down by infighting and general distrust, with no clear sign of when VC-1 the SMPTE standard based on WMV9 will reach fruition.
It certainly won't be within the time frame outlined by Patrick Griffis, Microsoft's director of worldwide media standards, who predicted at the time of the donation, in September 2003, that WMV9 would be an SMPTE standard within six to 12 months.
A number of technical and political issues surrounding VC-1 have reportedly caused growing frustration and constant bickering in the SMPTE engineering community. In addition, licensing issues loom large, and some fear that royalties may prove too expensive for the SMPTE codec to be usable.
The uncertainty has raised questions about the future of Microsoft's Windows Media Video codec. On the assumption that WMV9 was destined to become an industry standard, Microsoft convinced both the Blu-ray Disc Association and the DVD Forum to include it as a mandatory video compression format (along with MPEG-2 and H.264/MPEG-4 AVC) for next-generation high-definition DVD formats. Now, there is speculation that delays or licensing problems for VC-1 could prompt either or both of the DVD industry groups to simply delete the Microsoft technology from their specifications.
Others believe that political infighting might make VC-1 a short-lived, interim industry standard that eventually gives way to H.264/MPEG-4 AVC. That specification is an open video compression standard jointly developed by the International Telecommunication Union and MPEG members.
"VC-1 may be interesting at some point in the future, but [our] members have shown that [H.264/MPEG-4] AVC is technically superior," said Richard Mavrogeanes, founder and chief technology officer of VBrick Systems Inc., and a board member of the MPEG Industry Forum and the Internet Streaming Media Alliance. ISMA advocates a multivendor, interoperable standard, "because that moves the industry ahead," he added.
Multiple sources close to the SMPTE process told EE Times last week that Microsoft created the impression in the industry that its WMV9 codec had a leg up on H.264/MPEG-4 AVC in quality and licensing terms. But now that the WMV9-based VC-1 has been put to the test in the arduous SMPTE standardization process, VC-1 is "perceived as behind in quality and behind in licensing terms, compared to H.264/MPEG-4 AVC," one source said.
Moreover, by passing the WMV9 codec to SMPTE, Microsoft is no longer in control of VC-1 royalties. Those terms and conditions must be agreed upon by the essential-patent holders for VC-1. There are 12 of them at the moment, according to the MPEG LA licensing agency.
At the heart of the issues that have slowed SMPTE's standardization process lies the industry's general suspicion of Microsoft. One industry analyst characterized Microsoft's donation of WMV9 to SMPTE as a "calculated maneuver to gain respect for the proprietary technology" from the broadcast and movie industries. With the move, the analyst added, Microsoft singlehandedly undermined years of intensive H.264/MPEG-4 AVC joint development efforts by the ITU and MPEG, and derailed the industry's embrace of H.264 as a standard.
Ironically, a Microsoft executive chaired the H.264 joint video team and successfully guided the group to the H.264 spec ratified at ITU-T in May 2003. Nevertheless, Microsoft has been promoting WMV9 as a proven codec that strikes a better balance between compression efficiency and computational efficiency than H.264.
Microsoft's Griffis acknowledged that some "filibuster" moves by Microsoft detractors within SMPTE have slowed the standardization process. But he expressed no regrets.
"We know this is a big commitment on our part," he said. "The open, recognized, international standard is very important to us. Through the SMPTE process, we believe that our technology has, in fact, become a significantly better standard."
Peter Symes, SMPTE engineering vice president, declined to predict when VC-1 will become a Full Committee Draft (FCD). "There were some delays at the beginning, but an enormous amount of work has been done. It's very complex; it takes time," he said. SMPTE expects to have an FCD ballot soon, which would mark the end of technical changes to VC-1.
Microsoft stirred up animosity against standardization efforts last month when company representatives prematurely declared that VC-1 was already an FCD. In fact, SMPTE is currently conducting a second Committee Draft ballot.
Other sources suggested that VC-1 may not become a full standard until the end of 2005, or later. Speaking on condition of anonymity, many critics admitted to hard feelings caused by Microsoft's attempts to "railroad" participants in the SMPTE process, by mismanagement of the SMPTE committee and by SMPTE's and Microsoft's "gross underestimation" of the difficulties of standardization.
One computer industry executive said he was stunned by the level of confusion at SMPTE's engineering group. "SMPTE consists of prime movers of the invention of TVs and films, with a glorious tradition of doing good work. And yet, SMPTE today is genuinely struggling with the complexity of convergence between IT and media worlds," he said. "There are a lot of SMPTE old-timers who are very upset and angry about this VC-1 issue."
Rob Koenen, chairman of the MPEG Requirements Group, said he has observed the VC-1 process closely. "I believe that SMPTE had no clue what their responsibility was," he said. "I also think Microsoft greatly underestimated what it takes to develop WMV9 into an industry standard and to ensure its interoperability." Koenen added, "It is a very complex technical process. It just takes time even without politics."
Microsoft has given the impression that its WMV9 and SMPTE's VC-1 are one and the same, but there are differences. Windows Media includes many things that are not part of VC-1, including digital rights management, metadata, a playlist and a user interface. VC-1 is purely a video compression algorithm.
In addition to transport and conformance documents for VC-1, the SMPTE group still needs a reference software decoder and reference bit streams to ensure interoperability among different VC-1 implementations. This work is not yet completed. Nor are there any signs of a reference encoder for VC-1. Without it, some SMPTE members claim they cannot test decoders, since each has proprietary test sequences that require encoding. The test bit streams currently provided by Microsoft are not enough, one critic said. "There are elements in a VC-1 bit stream, provided by Microsoft, that are simply not there."
Also at issue is whether VC-1 creates a level playing field for those who wish to build their own codec, rather than licensing Microsoft's implementation.
In other standardization processes, such as the development of H.264/MPEG-4 AVC, participants had free access to reference encoder and decoder source code. "It has become the norm in standards bodies to do it this way to guarantee extensive testing by all participants to check out all potential interpretations of the text of the standard," said another industry source close to the SMPTE process.
There is also growing concern that SMPTE's VC-1 and Microsoft's WMV9 may not evolve in lockstep. Griffis said Microsoft intends "to make future versions of Windows Media Video [such as WMV10] compatible with VC-1." But some believe Microsoft could add a new video codec VC-2, for example to future versions of Windows Media Video. Such a scenario is "unlikely" in the next few years, said Jordi Rivas, director of Microsoft's Windows Digital Media Division. But he acknowledged that it may be possible "five to six years from now." If encoder advancements justify a change, it will be "the market's decision," he said.
Some see an inherent danger in the disconnect between WMVx and VC-1. Microsoft is likely to include all features of VC-1 plus more in a newer version of Windows Media Video, if not a VC-1 codec replacement. "The bottom line is that any VC-1 implementer will be disadvantaged in the marketplace unless they also add all the then-current features of WMVx," one source said. Another industry observer added, "If we see some new features in WMVx, Microsoft will simply tell us, 'Well, come and get them from us.' "
In short, industry players that have embraced VC-1 fear they may have to go back to Microsoft and pony up fees for a WMVx license in the future. MPEG's Koenen dismissed such a possibility. "Microsoft knows better than that," he said.