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25 June 2020

MPEG founder tears up rulebook, calls ISO feudal, as SC29 slides in

We have come to understand in more detail the events that led to the shock shuttering of the MPEG Group a fortnight ago as legendary founder Leonardo Chiariglione left in a blaze of fiery blog posts. His anger is understandable, as someone who pioneered the very fabric of this video industry we call home only to have it swept from underneath him, yet the vitriolic manner in which he announced his departure has left a sour taste for many.

Describing the “feudal” ISO (International Organisation for Standardisation) as having a hierarchical structure akin to the Roman Empire, Chiariglione has painted a picture of an archaic organization deeply detached from the world he helped create. However, speaking to people familiar with the situation, Faultline has established that MPEG is – of course – going nowhere.

Rather, a reshuffle and change of leadership within Working Group 11 of the ICO’s sub-committee 29 (SC29) has taken pride of place – with Gary Sullivan of Microsoft taking the helm. We understand Chiariglione was offered a range of “honorary” roles but declined, clearly considering this offer an insult to his integrity given that these positions are virtually powerless. So, Chiariglione abruptly resigned from the ISO and declared the death of MPEG as his mic-drop moment.

This reorganization involved certain sub-groups of MPEG being promoted to Working Group status, which included voting for a so-called “delayering” of SC29. The significance of this is that MPEG accounted for over 95% of SC29, and over 50% of ISO as a whole, so promoting MPEG to SC29 was seen as a totally logical step from an organizational viewpoint. Yet this organizational structure is exactly what has driven Chiariglione out.

“The foot soldiers bear the brunt, the officers get the medals,” states Chiariglione’s latest blog post.

So, what’s next for MPEG? Certainly a more forceful push of the ISO umbrella can be expected, while people close to the matter have no idea if the MPEG or even JPEG nomenclature will come under review. Similarly, not much is expected to change on a technical basis for the three new MPEG standards coming out this year – JVET VVC, MPEG-5 Part 1 EVC and MPEG-5 Part 2 LCEVC. All three are ISO/IEC standards and all three are already technically complete, so the organizational changes of ISO SC29 should only impact future ISO/MPEG standards, rather than on the MPEG standards that have already been completed. Of course, industry adoption of these three emerging standards will depend on technical merit, ease of implementation and business cases, more than what the new-look ISO SC29 says or does.

Chiariglione has also been a vocal critic of the Alliance for Open Media in the past, describing how the success of AV1 would destroy the industry by shifting more power into the hands of a few internet and chip giants away from traditional device makers, although his latest post avoided opening that particular can of worms. In AOMedia’s defense, monetization via licensing fees is not the only key to innovation, but merely one of many. Enabling apps and services is vital to making money from implementations. The inability of HEVC to push up the monetization stack in the way AOMedia’s AV1 can, has held it back to an extent.

It comes only a few months after giants Huawei, Samsung, and Qualcomm all put weight behind the recently approved EVC standard as part of MPEG-5 Part 1.

For balance to what is largely an acrimonious outburst, Chiariglione notes how some important aspects of the ISO society which are feudal. “ISO is populated by excellent people operating in Working Groups while the rest plays the power game in the higher layer,” he writes.

Despite pressure from emerging codecs and confusion around the three-way HEVC patent pool fragmentation, MPEG was clearly not going anywhere anytime soon. So, on a final note, Chiariglione has kindly listed his strategy to save what used to be MPEG Video codec from disappearance. Chiariglione reckons HEVC and VVC will go nowhere if left by themselves, so enter EVC as a mezzanine standard between HEVC and VVC. Adding LCEVC on top of EVC can then compete with VVC in terms of quality, in appropriate conditions, and – if EVC succeeds and patent holders agree to a decent license – VVC can then have its own run at the prize.