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Multimedia Standards


The best thing about standards is that there are so many of them
(author unknown)
You will often hear this quote repeated, and a quick look at any list of standards will certainly reveal that there are indeed a large number. Part of the reason for this is that even within a single area, for example, images, one standard cannot provide a suitable solution for all applications. Choosing the right standard involves choosing the right standard for that particular application.

This report will look at the standards in the area of multimedia. The first section, will look at what a standard actually is, why is important to use them, and how to choose the right standard for the job. The second section will give an overview of multimedia standards.

What is a standard?

Standards are in use everywhere, in every aspect of everyday life. For the most part, we simply are not aware that standards are being used, it is only when standards are not used and problems arise that we notice. For example, UK electrical appliances connect to a 240V power supply using a three pin plug. In the UK this works fine, because one standard is used across the country. Outside the UK, however, it is a different matter, as there are a variety of different plug types and voltages.

So, a standard implies consistency and conformity, which means they facilitate interoperability and compatibility. They are basically a documented agreement specifying the criteria which the product or service must adhere to. These 'agreements' can arise in two main ways, through development by a standards body, de jure standards, or de facto standards, commercial products that become accepted as a standard simply because of their wide-range adoption, for example Adobe's PDF format for printable digital documents.

The International Organisation for Standards or ISO (from the Greek 'isos' meaning equal) was set up in 1947 as a non-governmental organisation to promote the development of standardisation. There are now around 100 member countries, each with their own national body, such as the British Standards Institution (BSI) contributing to ISO's work. Over 10,000 ISO standards have been published, on a very wide range of subjects, from paper size to programming languages. In addition national bodies may also publish their own standards. The Internet Engineering Task Force is an open, international body which develops and maintains standards relating to the Internet, such as TCP/IP.

It should be noted that because a technology is a standard does not mean that copyrights and patents do not apply to it.

Why use standards?

Standards in computing are developed to solve three main problems:
  • interoperability - allow systems to communicate with each other (e.g., TCP/IP)
  • portability - allowing software to work on different systems (e.g., Java)
  • data exchange - allowing data to be transferred to different systems (e.g., SGML, JPEG, RTF)
Using standards can enhance communication, ensuring for example that data can be easily shared among all members of a research group

Choosing standards

Since there are usually several standards within a particular area to choose from, it is important to choose the right one. Factors to consider include:
Where data is only stored for a short period of time, the most important factors are that it can be easily read by all users. Where data is stored for longer, for example for archival purposes, it becomes important that the format is not only suitable now, but will also be readable in the future. In such cases it is usually better to use a de jure standard
Data for archival purposes should always be stored at the highest possible level of quality, for example images should be stored in a format that does not use lossy compression. For other purposes reduced quality may be desirable to reduced file size, for example using JPEG to compress images for use on the World Wide Web.
We are increasingly seeing standards and formats which are supported on a variety of platforms, but many de facto standards are still only supported on limited platforms.
There are costs involved in adhering to standards. These can include purchasing new software or equipment, modifying applications, developing new training materials and replacing existing data. Using a de facto standard may reduce costs initially, but there is the danger of being 'locked-in' to one supplier.

Further Reading

MacMorrow, N., Cracking the code: multimedia standards and what they mean. Online Information 93, Proceedings of the 17th International Online Information Meeting.7-9 Dec., 1993, London, England. Learned Information, Oxford and New Jersey, 1993. 235-241.

Kuny, Terry, "So Many to Choose From": An Introduction to Standards and the Internet. Global Village Research, Ottawa, 1996.

The Governor's Council on Geographic Information - Why Use Standards?

Lorcan Dempsey, Anne Mumford, Alan Robiette and Chris Rusbridge, eLib standards guidelines. Produced for FIGIT, Feb 1996.

Anne Karjalainen, Using OII Document and Multimedia Standards in Concretizing the Virtual Learning Environment. Information Technology Research Institute, Jyvaskyla University

Martin P. Lee & Stephanie A. Robertson, The use of Microsoft Windows Multimedia File Formats. AGOCG Multimedia File Formats Workshop, Loughborough Univiersity, 1995

Carl Fleischhauer, Digital Formats for Content Reproductions. National Digital Library Program, Library of Congress. August 1996

Maintained by Sue Cunningham Updated:

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