Breaking Open the Video Frontier, Despite MPEG-LA

Ogg creator focuses on video as exciting new frontier for young developers

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Did you know that nearly every video produced for Web viewing has been, at one point or another, in MPEG format no matter in what format the video is ultimately saved?

According to Chris "Monty" Montgomery, nearly every consumer device outputs video in MPEG format. Which means that every software video decoder has to have MPEG-licensed technology in order to process/edit video.

There are exceptions, of course. "Webcams (low res/grainy/low FPS/no optics) are usually raw video in a Beyer format but they're tiny and not useful for real work," Montgomery explained. "Very old cams (SD) usually used MJPEG, which is OK. Everything newer is MPEG2 or AVCHD [which is MPEG4]."

Who is this Montgomery guy, and how does he know so much about video formats? Open source aficionados will recognize Montgomery as the creator of the Ogg audio and video container format, as well as the Vorbis audio codec. He also works on the Theora video codec, and is the founder of the Xiph.org Foundation, "a non-profit corporation dedicated to protecting the foundations of Internet multimedia from control by private interests."

So yeah, I think he knows a thing or two about video formats.

Actually, Montgomery is on a bit of a learning curve with video in the open source world. When I chatted with him this week, he related that currently he is occupied with figuring out how to improve free and open source software (FOSS) tools for video editing.

"I've been working like hell on patching Cinelerra," he told me, as well as using other tools, such as Blender. Montgomery sees one of his short-term goals as getting the overall quality of FOSS video tools improved, while he tackles his more forward-reaching goal: opening up the untamed frontier of video development.

"[My end goal is to] get geeks (and by geeks I don't just mean techie/computer geeks) actually doing things with audio and video," Montgomery explained. "Actually, there are a bunch of digital audio geeks. But video is a different story.

"I have a priority to fight the propaganda that video and codecs and all this stuff is so hard that it rightfully belongs to an elite [group] and no one else can comprehend it," he continued. "No one has been into it because it's been too expensive: no other reason. It is not fundamentally harder than other disciplines. So--my goal this year is to manufacture an army of first-level geek mages."

Montgomery, like many in the broader open source community, has noticed a certain maturity among various technologies in the FOSS world. There is a sense that the boundaries of the some frontiers have been reached, and that there is little excitement for up-and-coming developers. In video development, both in terms of codecs and tools, Montgomery sees a huge opportunity for younger developers to get in on the beginnings of a wide-open field of innovation.

And this won't be a frontier without its dangers. Right now, with nearly all video hardware producing MPEG-format output, there's little chance that anyone developing in this space won't run into the potential licensing and patent issues with MPEG-LA, the keepers of the all things MPEG.

Montgomery describes MPEG-LA as an organization that very tightly controls the MPEG licenses. "They require a license for legal use, and they won't sell you a license," Montgomery explained about the resistance FOSS projects have had with MPEG-LA when attempting to obtain licenses.

Interestingly, Montgomery doesn't believe that any FOSS project is in any danger of getting sued.

"They will also tell you, but only in a phone call, that it's okay, they don't care about that kind of use. But they will not put it in writing," Montgomery said.

And, from his engineering point of view, Montgomery sees the technical appeal of having one video standard, since it makes development and content creation so much easier. But, he emphasized, "not at the price of making sure no newcomer is ever allowed to compete ever again."

It's actually existing licensees that Montgomery worries about the most--a group that includes Canonical, which has licensed the H.264/AVC video codec. He has seen first hand what happens when MPEG-LA arbitrarily decides to revoke a license.

That complete sense of video-format ownership--past, present, and future--that angers Montgomery the most. The notion that there's no other way to handle video and never will be is an anathema to Montgomery, and understandably so. It helps to understand his drive to build alternate video and audio codecs, and the container formats for them. Giving developers and end-users a choice will get them out from under the watchful eye of MPEG-LA.

Montgomery used to work for Green Witch, a competitor for Music Match, an online music company. Fraunhofer Gesellschaft, an MP3 patent holder, invested in Music Match and charged Green Witch an exorbitant US$60 million to license MP3. This would ultimately drove Green Witch out of business.

But there's hope on the horizon. Besides the codecs and formats from the Xiph.Org Foundation, the new WebM format announced by Google in May will ideally provide consumers and developers with another alternative. Montgomery has thrown Xiph.Org support behind WebM, because Google's financial muscle (not to mention their free license) will have a real chance to break the hold MPEG-LA has on the market.

There hasn't been a lot of WebM chatter since the May announcement, with good reason, Montgomery explained.

"Some of that's inevitable. Because they're working on hardware lead times, not software. And the announcement and background work got delayed almost nine months due to the On2 shareholder 'we want more money' lawsuit," he said. "So Google had to delay everything. So rather than waiting nine-ish more months past May to see the promised WebM capable hardware coming in, we have to wait 18 months."

Which circles us back to where Montgomery is today: preparing that army of mages. Looking forward to a landscape where MPEG-LA is not quite so powerful, Montgomery anticipates that video, now that it's no longer as expensive, could become a real source of innovation in the FOSS community.

To that end, Montgomery is doing a lot of public speaking, spreading the word about what's new and cool in the world of video. That includes being one of the keynote speakers at the Ohio LinuxFest in September. Montgomery doesn't plan on dwelling on past history in his talk, but rather the exciting future he sees.

"I'm an engineer and I expect to mostly be talking to engineers so... shiny objects, bright primary colors, and just enough technical details to tell a briskly paced story," he detailed.

New tech, duck-and-weave patent fights, and a bright future... sounds like a good story thus far.

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