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Royalty-free web vid spec sets sail with Apple's help

MPEG-DASH rides choppy seas of patents and bad networks

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Updated A proposed standard to stream video online smoothly, regardless of network conditions, has been pushed forward with some rather unexpected patent-holder help.

MPEG-DASH was approved in a vote by ISO national member bodies as a way to stream media over HTTP. Publication of the standard is expected "shortly".

MPEG-DASH could supersede a raft of proprietary and royalty-protected technologies, developed by tech companies to stream media to mobile devices in particular - which are at the mercy of varying network speeds and connectivity conditions.

For fans of free and open source software, it'll raise the hope that HTML5 video can sidestep royalty-encumbered players currently available from the likes of Microsoft, Adobe or Apple.

To achieve smooth video streaming over HTTP today, the options include Adobe's Dynamic Streaming in Flash Media Server, Apple's HTTP Live Streaming (HLS), and Microsoft's Smooth Streaming that came in with Silverlight.

Apple, however, is among a small band of media patent royalty holders whose assistance has allowed MPEG-DASH to get this far, according to the ISO group.

Apple with Cisco Systems and the Fraunhofer Institute have been thanked by the MPEG-DASH effort for their response to a call for proposals. There's no more information about the help they delivered or what the documents contained.

Apple is not just owner of Apple's HTTP Live Streaming, however; it's also a member of the mighty MPEG LA patent pool, which licenses media codecs built by Apple and others and therefore dominates media recording and playback both online and in billions of devices.

(MPEG LA is not to be confused with the MPEG (Moving Picture Experts Group) experts, who are separately working on creating a royalty free video codec, nor does the patent pool have anything to do with ISO.)

Just to illustrate the strength of the MPEG LA patent pool, Apple, as a member, holds patents on MPEG-2 for use in video on TVs, PCs, set-top-boxes, DVD players and recorders. It also holds patents in the H.264 video coding standard used in computer software, mobile phones, games terminals, Blu-rays and more.

Dash it all, how does one avoid patent misery?

MPEG-DASH is a protocol that is compatible with two codecs: Internet Video Coding Technologies and WebVC. Apple and co fed back on WebVC, which according to the underlying meeting resolution [PDF here]: "WebVC focuses on the constrained baseline profile from the widely used AVC standard" - H.264. IVC is based on MPEG-1, believed to be a "safe, royalty-free baseline".

The ISO MPEG-DASH group will decide in early 2012 whether to go with IVC or WebVC.

What happens next is important: WebVC proponents have apparently indicated they hope to convince H.264 stakeholders - who also include Microsoft - to grant a royalty-free licence for the use of this technology in their streaming standard.

With H.264 ubiquitous on so many devices, including - yes, the iPad - there's little reason for Apple to give anything away, although it has at least documented its HLS protocol as an IETF internet draft, which is a first step to submitting a system as recognised standard. The MPEG LA union, meanwhile, has a mixed record when it comes to "free".

Freedom is what we give you

As the organisation that collects royalties for the use of H.264, MPEG LA had said it would not charge royalties for AVC/H.264 (MPEG-4 Part 10) on Internet Video that is AVC video and that is offered free by providers to end users through the Internet until December 15 2015. Last August, MPEG-LA went further by saying royalties would not be charged beyond that date.

However, it not say if or when royalties would resume and, clearly, MPEG-LA reserves the right to set terms. Encoder and decoder devices of any kind, meanwhile, are subject to applicable royalties.

And, when Google released its VP8 video codec under a royalty-free banner in February this year, MPEG LA beat the war drums: it asked its biz pals to submit patents they believed were essential to the fabric of VP8.

MPEG LA wanted ammunition for a violations shoot-out and so wants to create a patent pool for Google's codec. This would challenge the Google's efforts to make its codec royalty free - thereby killing the dream. The late Steve Jobs, meanwhile, in April last year warned a patent pool was also being assembled to "go after" the open-source video codec Ogg Theora beloved by many and used in browsers Google, Mozilla and Opera.

The one thing going in MPEG-DASH's favour is that developers have also started work on a own royalty-free video codec, something that could potentially serve as an alternative to VP8.

In the Machiavellian world of media technology alliances, royalties and ensuring that web video runs the best it can on your company's software or hardware, then the enemy of Apple's enemy could serve its friend. Or not. ®

This article has been updated to clarify the dates on royalty-free H.264 for Internet Video and explain the license still applies to encoders and decoders.

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