Among the companies that have staked their future on MPEG-4 is Envivio, a small South San Francisco company that provides end-to-end MPEG-4 solutions, including components to create, encode, protect, manage, distribute, and decode MPEG-4 content.
Envivio has been busy this year, as evidenced by a flurry of press announcements. This spring, following up on a winter announcement regarding availability of a plug-in for RealNetworks' products (RealPlayer, RealOne Player, and RealSystem Server), Envivio announced a plug-in for Microsoft's Windows Media Player. And it secured $14 million in second-round financing from Intel, Bertelsmann, Mitac, and others.
But Envivio's most interesting spring announcement was the one in which it claimed that its real-time MPEG-4 encoding software is capable of DVD resolution.
Envivio calls its Live Broadcaster "the world's first full D1 (DVD) resolution real-time encoder." Besides featuring new and advanced encoding algorithms to obtain higher compression, Live Broadcaster also includes an API for development and a remote management system.
"The broadcast and streaming community has been asking for DVD quality, full-screen resolution at a lower bit rate, and today they have it," said Envivio CTO Julien Signes when the announcement was made in March.
Yet critics point out that no matter how good MPEG-4 may be at the moment, it is something that must go through a committee process, and therefore, will always lag behind the competition. Envivio's Shawn Ambwani concedes this point. "MPEG-4 will always be behind proprietary standards. That's inherent, but it's not necessarily a bad thing. The real key to MPEG-4 is interoperability."
Licensing Problems Hold MPEG-4 Back
However, despite MPEG-4's allure of interoperability, its market success is not assured. And despite a lot of activity by Envivio and others, MPEG-4 has yet to really take off. Most industry analysts attribute MPEG-4's slow start to the convoluted, restrictive, and expensive licensing/pricing policies being pursued by MPEG LA, the licensing body which represents MPEG-4's many patent holders. One of MPEG LA's most onerous schemes is the idea of charging users every time video is delivered in the MPEG-4 format, something being called "pay-per-stream." Under this policy (which is still under consideration and not yet in place), developers would be charged a per-minute use fee for each hour encoded in the MPEG-4 format. This fee would apply not just to streamed content, but to MPEG-4-encoded content used on DVDs as well.
This fee proposal has caused great consternation among media player vendors such as Microsoft, RealNetworks, and Apple, because it stands to cost them a fortune. They've all expressed their displeasure, but MPEG LA has not yet backed down. And it isn't just the big shots that are shunning MPEG-4. Potential users are staying away in droves, apparently frightened by the swirling licensing controversy.
Meanwhile, MPEG-4 competitors, such as RealNetworks, for example, are delighting in the market stalemate caused by MPEG LA licensing problems. The stalemate is buying them time to improve their proprietary technologies and making them look good in comparison to MPEG-4.
Commenting on MPEG-4 during a press conference in April, RealNetworks CEO Rob Glaser said, "The licensing structure is putting the technology on the path to become irrelevant to the PC industry."
Ambwani acknowledges that MPEG LA licensing policies have been holding back his business, but he says MPEG LA will be changing its tune and compromising on certain issues. "They're fixing the problems now," says Ambwani.
But perhaps the MPEG powers-that-be are willing to bypass the PC industry. If Envivio's recent market successes are any indication, it looks like the MPEG-4 crowd is eyeing mobile phones and Interactive TV, including set-top boxes and Video On Demand (VOD) systems.
Envivio has found some success in the VOD market. This spring it announced that it has integrated its MPEG-4 Envivio Streaming Server with SeaChange International, Inc.'s VOD system, the first of its kind available to the television industry.
Envivio Streaming Server provides the capability to stream ISMA and ISO MPEG-4 efficiently through Internet, intranet, and broadcast networks with advanced capabilities to ensure optimized presentation of audio/video and mixed media.
"A turnkey solution leveraging SeaChange's uniquely scalable and reliable video server platform with Envivio's Streaming Server effectively brings MPEG-4 into the service of VOD," said Yvette Gordon-Kanouff, corporate vice president of strategic planning, SeaChange International. "The combined solution is focused on using less bandwidth to deliver media while maintaining high quality. This enables operators to save bandwidth while providing the same experience and increase revenue through interactivity and personalization."
Set-Top Box Market
The set-top box market is also a key one for Envivio, according to Ambwani. "We've seen a lot of interest in that area, but most iTV systems are still in trial," he says. "Nevertheless, it is a potentially big market."
Envivio announced a major set-top box deal in May. Under the marketing agreement, the EnvivioTV MPEG-4 software will be incorporated into chipsets from STMicroelectronics, one of the leading suppliers of integrated circuits for set-top boxes.
"Envivio provides an MPEG-4 software solution that is interoperable across multiple vendors and devices," says Ambwani. "Now DSL, cable, and satellite providers can get this in a single chipset from STMicroelectronics."
The next generation of set-top boxes is being developed for delivery of video and audio over IP using lower bandwidths, says Ambwani. "Using Envivio and STMicroelectronics, operators can expect broadcast quality video using less bandwidth, saving bandwidth costs, and new interactive and security features to generate new revenues."