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[The new technology: MP4]The new technology: MP4]

   Tina Khanna


So, I'm sitting inside a dark movie hall, watching a film called Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham. "It's long," I say to myself. "Really long." When the credits finally roll - yes, they do, eventually - I walk outside into a world where much has changed. There's a war on the horizon, a fever called football, and something called MP4, which my techno-savvy friends think will be the next big thing on the Internet.

So what exactly is this MP4?

I am sure you have heard of MP3 (the common name for MPEG layer 3), a compression technology for sound files. MP3 spawned a piracy movement online that worried the hell out of the global music industry. So, a company called Global Music Outlet (GMO), a licensee of a2bmusic, launched a proprietary technology dubbed MP4, which it claimed could check piracy and put the controls in the hands of the artistes. With this, it hoped to win over the music industry. But what it actually did was ruffle a lot of feathers and generate a controversy.

Controversy? Why? Wasn't it a good thing?
First, let us understand GMO's technology. Its MP4 enabled artistes to embed copyright information in CD-quality files for easy distribution over the Internet. Users could download small, executable files containing music and an embedded audio player. MP3s files, on the other hand, don't come with an embedded player but require special software like WinAMP to be played. MP3 audio files can be combined with other MP3 files to create a customised play list and can be burned on to a CD. With GMO's MP4, you could do neither.

The controversy started not over the technology but over GMO trademarking the name MP4. That's because the Moving Pictures Experts Group (MPEG), a working group in charge of developing standards for coded representation of digital audio and video, and the people who gave us MP3, were already working on MPEG-4, informally referred to as MP4.

Reacting to GMO's move, Eric Scheirer, editor of the MPEG-4 standard and a researcher at MIT's Media Lab, told Wired: ""I have no problem with the technology, and clearly it's a marketplace grab on the name MP4. It's really just a proprietary subset of MPEG-4, and it's misleading to call it MP4."

Unlike GMO's proprietary format, MPEG-4 is an open standard. Any company can license MPEG-4 and develop its own set of tools, as long as they are interoperable with other products. This ultimately benefits the user.

What's the big deal about MPEG-4?
MPEG-4 is being developed as a standard for multimedia delivery to fixed and mobile networks. This paper, Multimedia for our Time lays out exactly how MPEG-4 will make a difference: "a new language for sound promises compact-disk quality at extremely low data rates; and the multimedia content could even adjust itself to suit the transmission rate and quality."

The author goes on to explain: "Possibly the greatest of the advances made by MPEG-4 is that viewers and listeners need no longer be passive. The height of "interactivity" in audiovisual systems today is the user's ability merely to stop or start a video in progress. MPEG-4 is completely different: it allows the user to interact with objects within the scene, whether they derive from so-called real sources, such as moving video, or from synthetic sources, such as computer-aided design output or computer-generated cartoons. Authors of content can give users the power to modify scenes by deleting, adding, or repositioning objects, or to alter the behavior of the objects; for example, a click on a box could set it spinning."

But the most exciting part is the promise of video compression. A host of companies like Microsoft, DivX, RealNetworks and QuickTime are developing MPEG-4 based video codecs, software to compress and decompress video files that will enable delivery of video content over the Web.

For the latest developments, news, research, and tools on MPEG-4, log on to the MPEG-4 Industry Forum.

Is there a bad side to all this good news?
If MP3 unleashed a wave of music piracy, MP4 could well do that to movies. Recently, bootlegs of Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones appeared on the Internet a week before its release. In one of the first instances of MP4 piracy, hackers managed to get hold of a Microsoft video codec and flooded the Internet with copies of hits such as 'The Matrix', 'The Wizard of Oz' and 'Saving Private Ryan'. The hack was then called DivX. Of course, DivX has since moved away from its bootleg past, developed its own video codec and is now working on a system to protect digital video and audio from copyright violations.

What happened to GMO's MP4?
At the time of publishing, its official site takes us nowhere. Links to MP4 pages within its domain display a database error. A2bmusic, meanwhile, has discontinued its music delivery service.

What about Mp4.com?
Vivendi Universal, the French-based entertainment conglomerate that owns the Web site mp3.com, launched Mp4.com as the online destination for users and filmmakers to share movies online. The site's beta release features high-velocity digital video movie trailers, videos, games and animations.

Its technology is based on Pressplay, and requires a minimum of Windows 95 running on at least of 200 MHz Pentium with 32MB RAM and a soundcard. All you have to do is log on and download the video player. Then, pick from Hi Fi and Lo Fi features that allow you to 'stream' video files, or play them without copying anything onto your PC.

Would you call me really, really mean if I compressed Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham using MP4 and sent the file to my cousin in the US?
Yes, we would call you really, really mean. Some might even call you a criminal.

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