Back in the 1990s, I was told of an old maxim: “If you can’t win the market place, win the standard.” I thought that this was a cynical approach to standardisation until we looked through some examples of different markets where there are a small number of dominant players (e.g., CPUs for desktop PCs, GPU cards, tablet / smartphone OS) versus markets where there is enforced cooperation (Wi-Fi devices, network cabling, telephone equipment, USB connectivity). So, how does this affect technology in the media industry, and how can you use the power of standards in your organisation?
It seems that the media technology industry hasn’t made its mind up about what’s best. We have come from a history that is strong in standardisation (SDI, colour spaces, sampling grids, etc.), and this has created a TV and film environment where the interchange of live or streaming content works quite well, although maybe not as cheaply and cleanly as we would like. When the material is offline or file-based, there are many more options. Some of them are single-vendor dominant (like QuickTime), some are standards-led (like MXF), some are open source (Ogg, Theora) and others are proprietary (LXF, FLV).
Over any long timeframe, commercial strength beats technical strength. This guiding principal should help explain the dynamics of some of the choices made by organisations. Over the last 10 years, we have seen QuickTime chosen as an interchange format where short-term “I want it working and I want it now” decisions have been dominant. In other scenarios – as in the case of “I am generating thousands of assets a month and I want to still use them in six years time when Apple decides that wearables are more important than tablets” – MXF is often the standard of choice. Looking into the future, we can see that there are a number of disruptive technologies that could impact decision-making and dramatically change the economics of the media supply chain:
- IP transport (instead of SDI)
- High Dynamic Range (HDR) video
- 4k (or higher) resolution video
- Wide colour space video
- HEVC encoding for distribution
- High / mixed frame rate production
- Time Labelling as a replacement for timecode
- Specifications for managing workflows
Some of these are clearly cooperative markets where long-term commercial reality will be a major force in the final outcome (e.g., IP transport). Other technologies could go either way – you could imagine a dominant camera manufacturer “winning” the high / mixed frame rate production world with a sexy new sensor. Actually, I don’t think this will happen because we are up against the laws of physics, but you never know – there are lots of clever people out there!
This leads us to the question of how you might get your organisation ahead of the game in these or other new technology areas. In some ways being active in a new standard is quite simple – you just need to take part. This can be costly unless you focus on the right technology and standards body for your organisation. You can participate directly or hire a consultant to do this speciality work for you. Listening, learning and getting the inside track on new technology is simply a matter of turning up and taking notes. Guiding the standards and exerting influence requires a contributor who is skilled in the technology as well as the arts of politics and process. For this reason, there are a number of consultants who specialise in this tricky but commercially important area of our business.
Once you know “who” will participate, you also need to know “where” and “how.” Different standards organisations have different specialties. The ITU will work on the underlying definition of colour primaries for Ultra High Definition, SMPTE will define how those media files are carried and transported, and MPEG will define how they are used during encoding for final delivery. Figuring our which standards body is best suited for the economic interests of your organisation requires a clear understanding of you organisation’s economics and some vision about how exerting influence will improve those economics. Although a fun topic, it’s a little outside today’s scope!
So how do you bring standards to your organisation?
Step 1: join in and listen
Step 2: determine whether or not exerting influence is to your advantage
Step 3: actively contribute
Step 4: sit back and enjoy the fruits of your labour
For more on the topic, don’t forget to listen to our webinars! Coming soon, I’ll be talking about Business Process Management and standards – and why they matter.
Until the next one…