On my Charles F. Jenkins Lifetime Achievement Award

In a press release today the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences announces that I have been selected to receive the Charles F. Jenkins Lifetime Achievement Award, “a special engineering honor to an individual whose contributions over time have significantly affected the state of television technology and engineering”.

I should be happy to see the recognition of 30 years of work dedicated to making real the vision of humans finally free to communicate without barriers and sharing more and more rewarding digital media experiences. Still, I need to make a few remarks.

The first remark is that my endeavours were driven by the hand of God and that tens, hundreds and thousands of people have made MPEG what it is recognised for: the originator of standards that have changed the lives of billions of people for the better.

The second remark concerns the word “lifetime” in the name of the award. This sort of implies that my professional lifetime has been observed in its entirety. I hereby communicate that I do not intend to retire anytime soon.

The last and most important remark concerns two necessary conditions for the success of MPEG standards. MPEG demonstrably achieves the first – technical excellence – but those in charge of the second – commercial exploitability – perform less and less. Indeed MPEG approved the HEVC standard in January 2013 (56 months ago!), but prospective users must negotiate with 3 different patent pools and a host of individual patent holders to get a licence. There are standards that will never see the light or, if they will do, will not be used because the standards organisations have been unable to update their processes from the time they dealt with standards for nuts and bolts.

I did my best to reverse this trend by raising awareness on these problems. Vested interests have stopped me, depriving billions of people and various industries of the benefits of new MPEG standards.

I am happy to receive this Charles F. Jenkins Lifetime Achievement Award – for what it means for the past – but with a sour taste for the future, the only thing that matters.

Standards for the present and the future

It is hard to talk sensibly to the general public about standards. It is a pity because standards are important as they ensure e.g. that nuts match with bolts, paper sheets feed into printers, music files play on handsets and a lot more.

One reason is that standards are one of the most ethereal things on Earth as they concern interfaces between systems.  Another reason is that the many industries created by human endeavour have developed their own customs: what is a must in one industry can be anathema in another. Yet another is the fact that standards are often the offspring of innovation, often generating flows of money that can be anything from a trickle to a swollen river.

Standards used to have a direct impact on industry, but only rarely on end users, at most only on a small portion of them. Recently, however, Information and Communication Technologies have become so pervasive, affecting companies by the thousands and people by the billions, that standards underpinning the industry have assumed unseen impact and visibility.

One of the most egregious cases is the ISO/IEC standard called High Efficiency Video Coding (HEVC). Work on this standard started in January 2010 and ended with the first release exactly 3 years later. As of July 2017 there are 3 patent pools (one representing 35 patent holders) and a number of companies (not represented by any patent pool) all claiming to have Intellectual Property (IP) on the standard.

It is no surprise that most people do not even know about HEVC because it is seldom – if ever – used in audio-visual services, and this 4 and a half years after industries could implement the standard – 18 months longer than it took to develop the standard itself. And some people say that standardisation takes too long!

This situation creates three clear losers:

  1. Companies that have contributed their technologies to the standard do not get the benefits of their investment;
  2. Companies that would be ready to use – in products, services and applications – HEVC because it performs better (by 60%) than Advanced Video Coding (AVC) currently in use are practically prevented from using it;
  3. End users are deprived of their right to get better or new services, or simply services where it was not possible to have them before.

If there is market failure when the good/service allocation is not efficient because one can imagine a different situation where many individuals are better-off without making others worse-off, then we are in front of a market failure.

Or maybe not. According to recent news Apple has announced that they will support HEVC in High Sierra (macOS) and iOS 11. One expects that a company as important as Apple does not make such an announcement if they do not have their back well covered.

But is this a big news? It depends on how you look at it.

  • Actually not so big, because major handset manufacturers are reportedly already installing HEVC chips in their handsets. So the Apple news is the software equivalent of a déjà vu and we are in in front of a market failure.
  • If the news is as big as some people claim it is, then we are forced to conclude that only a company worth 800 B$ can get the licence required to exercise the HEVC standard. So we are in front of market success.

Maybe not, or maybe yes. If we are in front of market success, we have sacrificed a major principle of international standardisation enshrined in the ISO/IEC Directives: standards must be accessible to everybody on a nondiscriminatory basis on reasonable terms and conditions. Everybody of the size of Apple Inc., I mean.

The problem of these well-intentioned rules is that they were developed at a time when patents relevant to a standard were typically held by one company. Even with tens of MPEG-2 and AVC patent holders, things were still under control because there was one patent pool and a limited number of patent holders outside. However, in HEVC we are dealing with close to 100 patent holders grouped in 3 patent pools and a significant number of patents holders outside. HEVC is not the exception, but the rule, in this and future standards.

The sentence underlined does not imply that it is always necessary to pay in order to access a standard. If an amount has to be paid, it should be the same for all. If access is free it should be free for all.

The devil, they say, is in the details. Per ISO/IEC Directives a patent holder is not obliged to disclose which patents are relevant to a technology proposed for a standard. This is not ideal but acceptable if the patent holder intends to license the technologies contributed for a fee, because precise identification of relevant patents will be part of the development of licensing terms with a now well-honed process.

If, however, access to the standard is intended to be free of charge, such “blanket” declarations should not be acceptable because the committee developing a standard has no means to remove the technology. Declarations may come from companies that have more patents than employees and there is no process to develop licensing terms.

It should also not be acceptable that patent holders make patent declaration where they declare they own relevant patents that they do not intend to licence them. Again the committee developing the standard has no means to remove the infringing technology.

These problems have been identified and brought to an appropriate level in ISO/IEC. Is anything going to happen? Don’t count on it. At the meeting where the problems were presented, delegates from a handful of countries disputed the process that brought the matter to the attention of the committee, but no discussion could take place on the substance of the matter.

Something is rotten in the state of Denmark, and some are determined to keep it rotten.

Personal devices and persons

USA President Obana is reported saying (NYT 2016/03/12): “If, technologically, it is possible to make an impenetrable device or system, where the encryption is so strong that there is no key, there is no door at all, then how do we apprehend the child pornographer? How do we disrupt a terrorist plot?”

Anwer with another question: “How do we make a child pornographer or a terrorist talk if he does not want to?”

Egg and chicken – tax and expenses

After decades of funding the most fancy and unproductives aspects of the welfare state by raising taxes, politicians have discovered that too much is too much. So cutting taxes has become the mantra of right- and left-wing politicians alike.

There is one problem, though. Citizens have become unresponsive (i.e. they don’t believe anymore to “tax cuts” promises).

One suggestion to politicians in need of recovering citizens’ confidence: instead of saying “I will cut this tax”, say “I will cut this expense”.

Getting out of the mess

The Christian religion explains the mess of the world we live in with the Original Sin that has destroyed the good nature that would otherwise be in us.

The Original Sin cannot be undone but Baptism and adherence to the Religion’s precepts promise to make us reborn people.

How can this help sorting out the European mess experienced of these days? Here, too, we have an original sin: greedy Greek politicians bent on lighting new debts from greedier bankers bent on dispensing the banks’ assets as if they were candies for children.

Alas, that original sin cannot be undone and there is no baptism redeeming people. There are two precepts, though, that can help people’s rebirth.

  1. If a bank manager recklessly lends money to a country and the loan goes sour, the manager pays. There is no room for excuses like “the country showed bogus accounts” because 1/10 of the diligence bank managers put when a small enterprise requests a loan should be enough to detect holes in the accounts of a country.
  2. If a bank risks failing because its managers have recklessly rented money to greedy politicians, the bank fails. No socialising of losses. Notionally the state can decide to rescue the bank, but bank shareholders get the reward the deserve for their lack of vigilance (aka connivance): nothing.

Leonardo’s views on European Parliament’s “Google’s vote”

It is hard to legislate when the matter at hand is constantly changing. This is the case of the recent recommendation of the European Parliament  (EP) to introduce regulation of internet search and break up Google.

It is not the first time public authorities break up companies: they did it in 1911 with Standard Oil Co. Inc. But that decision was more than a century ago and was about a company that was controlling too many “atoms” (actually molecules) that people were interested in.

In the second half of the ’90s public authorities realised that Microsoft was controlling too much of the “bit processing” going around. Luckily in 2000 Microsoft escaped Standard Oil’s fate and was “just” forced to give users the possibility to select a different browser than Internet Explorer in their Windows OS. This obligation only applied to Microsoft and not to other “bit processing” companies.

In the current case we are dealing with a company that controls, in EP’s opinion, too many “information bits” so why not breaking it up? As users can already select other search engines, a Microsoft-like solution is probably not the right one.

There is a solution: if we define a standard format that search engines must use when presenting search results to users, there would be room for intelligent software to nitpick exactly the information of interest, using not just the output of one, but of many search engines.

Of course this obligation should not be imposed on a single company –why punish a company for its success? – but on all companies running search services.

So the conclusion, valid for a world of information handling companies, is: don’t break up companies (left-hand side of the figure), force them to expose interfaces to the information they handle (right-hand side of the figure).

Business-layers

Leonardo closes the 39th DMP meeting, Strasbourg (FR) – 2014/10/25

The 39th DMP meeting reviewed the Web TVOS Framework API and produced v1.1 of the specification.

For GA40 the following contributions are expected

  1. A drawing explaining operation of the specification in a client-server mode
  2. A rationale and a list of changes/extensions effected to the TVAnytime specification to produce this specification
  3. A study on what makes this specification different from other specifications. In case the differences are small metadata schema identification will be supported, if they are large a revised version of the current specification will probably be developed without support to metadata schema identification.

Leonardo closes the 38th DMP meeting, Sapporo (JP) – 2014/07//10

The 38th DMP meeting reviewed submissions and created a workplan for its 3rd series of DMP specifications that aims to define a comprehensive system view of media services that are based on a main broadcasting service supplemented by interactive and personalised services delivered via the internet. The specification will include a general model of Hybrid-Delivery Media Services (HDMS) and their stakeholders, HDMS requirements, system-wide interfaces and user application interfaces.