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MPEG-4 Becoming Louder, Clearer?

The push to make MPEG-4 the de-facto standard for digital media distribution will receive a shot in the arm with the expected adoption of the aacPlus, a component that enables the delivery of high-quality audio codecs at half the bit rate of existing technology.

MPEG-4, for the uninitiated, allows a single form of compression on all media players and it has become quite popular among the developer crowd because of the ability to add text, animations and graphics in an object-based setting.

The new technology, from Swedish firm Coding Technologies is expected to gain acceptance at a March vote to become the core component of MPEG-4 Audio but even as the announcement set tongues wagging in the digital media sector, analysts are cautioning the standards groups is still far away from replacing propriety technologies from powerhouses like Microsoft and RealNetworks .

"The addition of this new component will definitely benefit the growth of MPEG-4. The compression issue around any audio or video distribution is always key," said Michael Hoch, research director at Aberdeen Group. "When you're delivering audio and video on the low end and on wireless platforms, it is logical to choose something that allows low compression," Hoch said of the move to adopt aacPlus.

While the move to add accPlus won't necessarily displace the original MPEG-4 audio standard, Hoch believes it widens the choice for mobile and digital broadcast companies looking to make use of a low bit-rate delivery mechanism.

Coding Technologies said aacPlus was a combination of MPEG AAC and its own Spectral Band Replication (SBR) technology. The SBR bandwidth extension technique allows audio codecs to deliver the same quality at half the bit rate. Because SBR is a backward and forward compatible method to enhance the efficiency of any audio codec, the company said aacPlus would deliver streaming, as well as download, CD-quality stereo at 48 kbps and excellent quality stereo at 32 kbps.

"This level of efficiency fundamentally enables new applications in the markets of mobile and digital broadcast," the company said.

Aberdeen Group's Hoch agreed the addition of aacPlus opens up new markets but he cautioned that the wireless sector, particularly in North America, was still not advanced enough to make this a huge breakthrough. "Even at 46 kilobits per second, it's still going to be too big for any North American wireless network. For Europe and Asia, it makes a lot more sense."

Steve Vonder Haar, an analyst with Interactive Media Strategies sees the upcoming adoption of aacPlus as an incremental add-on to the MPEG-4 foundation. "This illustrates that there can be an ongoing evolution of the MPEG-4 standard with improvements to help it stay relevant in the marketplace," Vonder Haar said. "Anything that helps MPEG-4 address the issue of improving quality helps the standard gain more traction in the market. If you can make the audio file smaller and maintain high quality, that is a positive development for MPEG-4."

Like Aberdeen Group's Hoch, Vonder Haar sees aacPlus finding fans among wireless clients. "Obviously, on wireless networks, you need to get the packets as small as possible. Wireless is the one venue where data size is at the most premium. Anything that helps reduce the bandwidth burden can help further adoption of the standard," he said.

Ryan Jones of the Yankee Group did not share Coding Technologies' enthusiasm for the coming adoption of the aacPlus componet. "This isn't terribly significant. Basically, it enhances the value proposition of MPEG-4 overall but it won't end up replacing MP3 for pureplay audio. Yes, it give you a smaller file size but I don't think it fundamentally changes the dynamics of the industry," Jones told internetnews.com.

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