Dot the i’s and cross the t’s


In Book 2 of the Georgics, the Latin poet Virgil writes “Felix, qui potuit rerum cognoscere causas”. This maxim was true in 29 BC when the Georgics was written and remains true 2030 years later. For those who did not have the chance to study Latin, the verse means “Fortunate who could know the causes of things”.

Virgil’s maxim will be used in this article to draw some conclusions on current matters. Before getting to the things, however, I need to talk about the the causes. Those who cannot wait can jump to the conclusions, at their own risk.

The need for standards and standards bodies

At the climax of Belle Époque, Europe realised that a properly functioning industry needed standards. Britain – at that time for sure and, from now on, most likely not really part of Europe – was the first to establish an Engineering Standards Committee (1901).

In 1906 the most culturally advanced industrial field of the time – electrical technologies – was the first to recognise the need, not just for standards, but international ones, and established the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC). Electrical technologies were second only to telecommunications (actually third, if we consider the Universal Postal Union) in recognising that need. Indeed, 41 years before governments had established the International Telegraph Union. But governments is one thing and private industry quite another.

The rest of the world took a quarter of a century and a war to realise the need for international standards. Finally in 1926 the International Federation of the National Standardising Associations (ISA) started, only to stop 16 years later when governments has other priorities (killing millions of people in WW II). In 1946 the idea was revived and the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) was created as a not-for-profit association. National Standards Associations (or National Bodies) – not governments – are represented in ISO.

How can you govern an international organisation that issues standards that are, yes, voluntary but, if you do not conform, you’re in a whole world of hurt? The answer is: hierarchy and scope. In ISO there are 4 layers (actually more, if you want to know how many read Who owns MPEG?): Technical Management Board (TMB), Technical Committees (TC), Subcommittee (SC) and Working Group (WG). Each entity is administered by a secretariat run by a National Body and has a scope that defines what the entity is expected and entitled to do.

Some scopes

Delimitation of territory is one of the most engaging human activities. According to Standards for computers and information processing, by T. B. Steel, Jr, page 103 et seqq. (in Advances in computers, Franz L. Alt and Morris Rubinoff (Editors) Volume 8) in 1967 the scope of TC 97 Data processing was: the standardisation of the terminology, problem definition, programming languages, communication characteristics, and physical (i.e. non electrical) characteristics of computers, and information processing devices, equipment and systems.

According to the same source, TC 97/SC 2 Characters set and coding at that time was about Standardisation of character sets, character meanings, the grouping of character sets into information, coded representation, and the identification of it for the interchange of information between data processing systems and associated equipments…

Typically working groups develop standards. They do so with a major constraint: decisions may only be made by “consensus”, defined as

general agreement where there is no sustained opposition to substantial issues by any important part of the concerned interests, in a process that seeks to take into account the views of all parties concerned.

The definition is supplemented by the note: consensus does not imply unanimity.

Obviously this text can only hint at the complexity of other environments where decisions are made not by consensus but by voting. One can image that these other environments are such that, in comparison, a horse-trading market is a place that boarding school pupils can safely visit.


In the 1980’s Videotex was a service telcos wanted to offer as a competing service to broadcasters’ Teletext service. One limitation of videotex and teletext, however, was that information could only be displayed with characters and rudimentary graphics (made as combinations of ad hoc characters). Telcos thought that videotex services could be enhanced by pictures transmitted at 64 kbit/s made available by Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN).

In 1986 a joint group between TC 97 of ISO and SG XVIII of CCITT (ITU-T’s name of the time) was created to develop a compressed image format. As videotext was based on characters, TC 97/SC 2 was the natural place to develop that standard. SC 2 created WG 8 Coded representation of Picture and audio information. WG 8 hosted the Joint Photographic Coding Experts Group (JPEG).

Two years later, WG 8 created the Moving Picture Experts Group (MPEG), not joint with CCITT. In any case, if it had been joint, it would have been joint with SG XV, not with SG XVIII. There was nothing equivalent to the Treaty of Tordesillas, but in CCITT the digital world was divided between SG XVIII for audio and telematic services, and SG XV for video. MPEG – Coding for Moving Pictures and Audio – was a Copernican revolution.

Immediately, MPEG had a skyrocketing attendance: 100 members 18 months after its establishment and 200 members after two more years. That was because MPEG was working on such a high profile standard as digital television (actually only the baseband part of it, but that did not really matter).

Unlike other committees dealing with the “digital television”, who were populated by “advocates” accustomed to use “analogue” arguments to support their proposals, MPEG was populated by technical experts who made their cases with “digital” arguments in the framework of inflexibly digital Core Experiments rules. Some “advocates” did show up in the early MPEG-2 days, but they soon left never to come again.

The parent committee

In the years 1989-90-91, I had supported WG 8 Convenor’s bid to promote WG 8 to SC status (see here for more details) and in April 1990 the SC 2 plenary approved the following resolution:

JTC1/SC2 considering that

  1. The standardisation of the coded representation of picture, audio and multimedia information is considered to be one of the most important areas for standardization in the 1990’s;
  2. The work and scope of SC2/WG8 has expanded substantially beyond the scope of SC2;
  3. The work of SC2/WG8 has developed into a critical mass largely significant to warrant SC status;

Recommeds to JTC1

  1. To establish a new JTC1 Subcommittee for the purpose of developing standards in the area of Coded Representation of Picture, Audio and Multimedia Information;

It took another 18 months for SC 29, the entity WG 8 had morphed into, to hold its inaugural meeting.

A role for SC 29

In ISO a Subcommittee is part of the formal hierarchy. What was SC 29’s role ?

  1. Playground for “advocates”. Having found a hard time in MPEG, one could think that “advocates” should move to SC 29 to find a more consonant “breeding ground”. Indeed, SC decisions are made by voting, but only after a lot of “analogue haggling” in the hallways. This did not happen because, once MPEG had settled the algorithm, the standard was done, save the need to to cross some t’s and to dot some i’s. There could have been room for some “analogue discussions” on some business-related issues as profiles and levels. SC 29, however, was not the right place to hold such discussions because only MPEG experts could handle the technical aspects.
  2. Playground of large company representatives. At that time some ISO committees were populated by some national body representatives who worked for some large companies. They were interested in committees NOT to develop some standards and sent their representatives to act accordingly. But as fate would have it, in the years immediately following the establishment of SC 29 there was a serious economic crisis that forced some large companies to lay off those professional participants to cut “unnecessary” expenses.
  3. Strategic planner. In 1993, the time of John Malone’s “500 channels”, the Italian National Body proposed to investigate standardisation opportunities for content metadata (see here for more details). SC 29 established an ad hoc group to study the needs for users who wanted to find content in those 500 channels. One year later, however, the convenor of the ad hoc group reported that there had been no activity. MPEG then developed the suite of content metadata standards called MPEG-7.

No one should be surprised that, for the next 25 years, SC 29 held yearly meetings to discuss such strategic issues as progression of work items, consolidations and minor revisions, and liaisons. Of course with no “advocates” in sight.

MPEG as a virtual subcommittee

The space left empty by SC 29 was occupied by MPEG. Continuing its initial drive, MPEG developed a modus operandi that has allowed it to produce the integrated digital media standards that have changed and keep on changing the media industry.

The four figures below depict the main elements of MPEG’s modus operandi.

  1. Top-left depicts the adaptation of ISO’s standard development process to acquire technology elements suitable to the development of a standard and to verify that the standard developed matches the original requirements. More on this at How does MPEG actually work?
  2. Top-right depicts the industries contributing technologies (right-hand side), the means to acquire them, the assets accumulated in MPEG standards and the client/implementation industries (bottom of figure). More on this at The MPEG ecosystem.
  3. Bottom-left depicts the unfolding of the MPEG workflow: ad hoc groups; “MPEG week” with its components: plenaries, subgroups, break-out groups, joint meeting and chairs meetings; and creation of new ad hoc groups. More on this at Looking inside an MPEG meeting.
  4. Bottom-right depicts the integrated nature of MPEG standards. The parts are developed by different groups who come to agree on the glue that is needed to keep the parts independent and interworking. Moreon this  in Hamlet in Gothenburg: one or two ad hoc groups?


MPEG has been fortunate to have been able to operate in a paradise island for 31 years.

It has devised strategies and defined work plans. It has sought and established liaison with outside industries. It has added industries as members of the MPEG digital media community. It has called for technologies and integrated them into standards. It has been the ear industries could talk to to have their needs satisfied

All this while MPEG meetings have grown to 600 participants and “advocates” have been kept at bay.

The MPEG digital media community has thrived on a continuous flow of evolving standards with an impact measured in trillions of USD and billions of people.

In Paradise Lost John Milton writes: Better to reign in Hell, than to serve in Heaven.

In Paradise MPEG a reborn John Milton could write: Better to serve in Heaven than to reign in Hell.

SC 29 was kind enough to handle administration. Mindless industry elements should memorise Virgil’s maxim before they engage in their adventures.

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