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This article was originally published on the London Tribe web magazine in December 2000.


MP3, MP4? How many MPs are there? Well you might just wonder. MP3 has taken root on  the  Internet and opened up endless opportunities for music lovers and litigators everywhere. Now, though, the new Mpeg-4 format has emerged and might well do the same to films that MP3 has done to music.

What is Mpeg-4?

Like MP3, Mpeg-4 (also known as MP4, Div X) is a compressed  media file.  It allows moving images to be stored in smaller (10% of original size) DVD quality packages, which has its obvious advantages on the Internet - a two hour movie  can be  squeezed onto a  single disk, with CD quality  surround  sound. MP4 was  designed  for broadcasters, to improve  live video on the Internet, but  was leeked  out of  Microsoft  and  placed in  the hands  of hackers,  who  quickly renamed the format DivX and distributed it across the Internet. Needless to say, Microsoft hastily sought legal action to prevent web sites from having links to the DivX codec.

Before you start browsing the Internet looking for Mpeg-4, bear this in mind. A movie stored as a DivX file is between 500 and 1200 megabytes in size. A file this size will take about 70 hours to download from the Internet using a standard modem. However, if you have a Digital Subscriber Line (DSL), you could download the file in three to seven hours. Even better, a cable modem will download the file in one hour. If you wanted to convert your own DVD movies to DivX, you will need the DivX codec (obviously), six gigabytes of hard drive space, a DVD drive, a CD recorder and the patience to wait 12 hours for the whole thing to process.

Not everyone wants to watch an entire movie on their computer but that need not pose too much of a problem. Many video cards can be connected to television, allowing your computer to "broadcast" the movie to you television. If the MP4/DivX format really catches on, electronics companies will no doubt produce players that will allow you to play downloaded movies through your television (or telephone, palmtop - in fact anything with a screen!).

The supply and demand for MP4 is not yet at equilibrium and you would be hard pushed to find many MP4 files on the Internet. MP3.com, the web site that freely distributes MP3 music files now owns the domain name MP4.com (go and have a look) and will no doubt expand the site as the format starts to grow. There is no "napster" for MP4/DivX and web sites found to be posting illegal movies face paying large copyright fines. That doesn't mean that there won't be movies available online - it just might take a while for the expansion to occur.

So what lies ahead?

It is clear that the whole technology arena is coming together slowly and it will only be a matter of time before computers,  televisions,  videos,  mobile phones,  palmtops  and games consoles all become inter-connectable. There have been prototype video recorders that contain a "hard drive", allowing the user to not only watch and record a programme simultaneously but also to rewind the programme whilst it is  still recording  and  watch an earlier segment.  With  televisions now allowing Internet access they are eating into the market that was previously the sole domain of computers. So a TV/PC union seems inevitable. The PC/mobile phone union is already occurring gradually (with the evolving WAP technology), as is the mobile phone/palmtop union. This may also lead to a TV/mobile phone/palmtop union. And this will inevitably lead to a TV/PC/mobile phone/palmtop unification. As the pieces come together, stereo systems and video recorders will be brought into line with the latest formats. And, if the latest formats come from the digital storing of data, MP3 and MP4 will now doubt form some kind of standard. The real question is not when will it happen but how will it be controlled and by whom?

Jasen Quick
December 2000