MP4, The New MP3 of Video

I haven’t said much about Apple’s announcement of a Video iPod because it was both inevitable and not news. We’ve had similar portable video players for years at this point. My old Archos Jukebox Multimedia, which lives on as a portable hard drive, being one of the earliest examples. In fact, Archos continues to lead in the portable video player space with video recording built-in to most of their units.
What is interesting about the Video iPod is the selection of supported video formats. Like Archos, like Sony’s PSP, like most of Creative’s supported video products, MPEG-4 video is playing a key role in video playback. It’s hopeful this is a sign of standardization among hardware vendors, although there’s a wildcard in the form of Microsoft’s WMV being used by video rental services like CinemaNow for delivering portable video. At the same time, the apparent path of least resistance for creating video is MP4. Instead of fooling around with five or six different output formats, it looks like offering MP4 to anyone who wants to watch your video on a portable device is rapidly becoming the video equivalent of using MP3 for compatible audio distribution.
The irritating thing here is Microsoft didn’t get the memo. While Apple is creating cross-platform tools for authoring MP4 video and Sony’s Vegas offers direct to PSP support, with most software vendors following suit; we can safely assume the next versions of Microsoft’s video products, like Windows Movie Maker and Windows Media Player will lack support for MP4 video without third-party intervention. Even my Windows Mobile cell phone records MP4 video, which won’t play on my Windows desktop without additional software. So while Macs ship with video authoring tools optimized for creating universally compatible movies, Windows Vista users will be looking to Apple for a QuickTime upgrade or buying their authoring tools elsewhere so that they don’t need to worry about who can watch the movie they created.