Is MKV the MP3 of video?

The release of the Napster client in 1999 is seen by most in the music industry as a watershed event. It was the moment when millions of people began “trading” individual music tracks over the Internet and–in the received version of the story–stopped buying CDs. The industry’s response was, first, panic, then to attempt to get the genie back in the bottle by suing Napster and its creators Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker. That led to similar suits against Friendster, Aimster, Grokster,  and any other peer-to-peer network “operator” the RIAA could identify clearly enough to serve with papers.  

napster-logoWhat had really hit the music industry, however, wasn’t P2P technology so much as the MP3 codec. The first MP3 encoder was released in 1994, and by 1995 it was being used in commercial consumer software such as WinPlay, and later WinAmp. Using MP3 compression, WinPlay users could store tracks ripped from a CD on a hard drive in files that were a fraction of their original size (a critical issue at the time given the small size of most consumer hard drives), albeit with some loss of sound quality. All Fanning had really done was to figure out a practical way to tie those hard drives together into ad hoc networks so that compressed music files could be exchanged at the relatively slow bandwidth speeds then generally available.

His “crime,” in essense, was being more clever than the executives who ran the multi-billion dollar record companies at figuring out how to use MP3 as a distribution format, rather than merely a storage format–an incite since vindicated by the emergence of commercial MP3 services from the likes of Amazon and Apple. It’s that ease of transfer–made possible by data compression technology like the MP3 codec–that is transforming the music industry, far more so than P2P technology, which is merely one platform for managing the transfers.

Just as the music industry was gobsmacked by the MP3 codec, the MKV format may be about to bushwhack the video industry.

.MKV is the video file format for the Matroska Multimedia Container, a free, open-source digital container that can hold an unlimited number of video and audio files, as well as subtitles and metadata  in a compact wrapper for easy streaming over the Internet. The name Matroska is derived from the Russian word matryoshka (Russian: матрёшка), which means nesting doll, a reference to the popular Russian egg-shaped doll-within-a-doll.

matroska-logoWhile video file-swapping is hardly a new phenomenon, MKV is rapidly becoming the means of choice among hackers because of its efficiency, flexibility and the MKV container’s ability to hold very large video files, such as those ripped from Blu-ray discs (.MKV files are about 40% smaller than Blu-ray files of the same material). The open-source MKV encoder is also widely and freely available on the Internet and a growing number of software players, such as VLC and MPlayer, now support playback of MKV-wrapped files.

Today, there are dozens of tools and tutorials available online for converting Blu-ray rips to MKV files. There’s even a commercial product available, called MakeMKV(currently in beta), that promises a “one-click solution to convert video that you own into free and patents-unencumbered format [sic] that can be played everywhere.” (Although most of the tutorials leave out the steps involved in actually ripping a Blu-ray disc, all take it for granted that such ripping is common, widespread and widely understood, which is a story for another day).

In short, MKV is becoming a de facto standard, for better or worse, particularly for high-def video, just as MP3 has become the de facto industry standard for digital music distribution. MKV support, in fact, is quickly finding its way into major-brand name consumer electronics devices, just as support for MP3 became de jeurefor audio devices. JVC’s debut Blu-ray player, for instance, the XV-PB1, supports high-def MKV file playback. At the IFA show in Berlin this month, Samsung announced a firmware upgrade that will add MKV support to three of its existing Blu-ray players.

In the biggest move yet, Panasonic announced at IFA that it will embed DivX HD Plus technology, which supports playback of MKV-wrapped high-def video, in its UniPhier chips, the System-on-Chip (SoC) processors that power Blu-ray players, digital TVs and other devices from a variety of manufacturers. DivX, of course, is itself no stranger to building a de facto standard from the ground up, and its incorporation of MKV support will only accelerate the streaming format’s adoption.

_Diamond Rio and iPod VideoThe growing support for MKV playback raises a host of tricky questions for the studios. Back in the day, the record companies actually sued Diamond for designing a portable MP3 player, the Rio, on ground that it was encouraging illegal music downloading by enabling playback of illicit content. A similar argument–in principle at least–could be made against Blu-ray players and other devices that support MKV playback.

The recored labels lost their suit against the Rio, however, and in any case the studios are unlikely to go after Panasonic and Samsung.

A more critical question concerns MKV’s potential future role in authorized commerce. While the record companies have largely made their peace with the MP3 format, its emergence as a standard has been very much a mixed blessing for the labels. Though the format is widely supported, creating a large potential market for MP3-endcoded content, its ad hoc path to becoming a standard left much of the distribution and device strategy for digital commerce in the hands of device makers, such as Apple, which has used that leverage to tilt the value chain in its favor at the expense of the record labels.

Like MP3, MKV is simply a technology. But it’s being put to uses that impact the studios, just as MP3 affected the record companies, despite their having no role in its development or the the distribution scenarios it enables.  

Something for studio executives to think about while listening to their iPods.


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