A little-known but powerful Italian engineer is trying to revolutionize the digital media landscape by burying his own best idea. BY MARK BOAL
A small group of executives stood around in a second rate Palo Alto hotel waiting for a man who'd never turned a profit in his life. They were a powerful bun CEOS, vice-presidents, senior managers-top-of-car guys, aces - and it was an important meeting. What brought them there was an organization called Secure Digital Music Initiative, or SDMI, which the recording industry founded almost two years ago to fight music piracy on the Internet.
The executives were waiting for SDMI's executive director, a cyber-engineer named Leonardo Chiariglione. After a while, he walked in, a bearded man with bags under his brown eyes, wearing a navy suit and a welcoming look. He moved through the room, shaking hands. Even as did, millions of Americans were engaged in a pastime that Chiariglione knows a lot about. Every day, housewives and college students, cops and bankers, and just about everyone in between sit in front of PC monitors, bask in the cathode glow, and steal a free song or two. They do it thanks to a file-compression format called MP3, even though the songs are protected by copyright and sharing them is arguably illegal. Piracy is bad for business, so it's no surprise that the recording industry has started an organization to stop it. They picked Chiariglione (pronounced care-lee-OWN-eh) to lead SDMI because he is, in fact, uniquely suited to the job.
Chiariglione is the father of MP3.
Though the record labels have sued the most flagrant piracy website, Napster, a lasting solution to the piracy problem they believe, must be technological, not legal. So Chiariglione's task now is to orchestrate another wonder, one that can make online content secure, and bury his fìrst creation. He doesn't have much time. When SDMI began its meetings, a year and a half ago, piracy was just an annoyance, an acceptable loss that record labels were willing to absorb. Since then, online piracy has exploded and become a problem that may prove fatal to the recording industry. Chiariglione may be able to forestall that outcome, but whether he succeeds or fails, every content industry will feel the results of his efforts; MP3 piracy may be the record labels' problem today, but tomorrow similar technologies will hit the videogame business, publishing, and Hollywood.
All or none of these dangers may have been going through the e tives' minds as they shook Chiariglione's hand. They certainly see happy to see him.
LEONARDO CHIARIGLIONE IS A PHILOSOPHICAL MAN, and he carries his philosophy with him like a doctor's bag, full of antidotes to piracy, potions or digital security. He's private and deeply reflective, but also impatient, brilliant, pompous, short-tempered, generous, and funny. Within he first few minutes of our meeting, I mentioned what seemed to me a straightforward irony: He was the father of MP3, yet now he was working to supersede it. Was this not a sort of technological infanticide? "No, no, no," he says in a lilting Italian accent. He emphasizes the progression of his work, saying that "secure content is the next logical step." Though MP3 inspired leagues of self-styled prophets and pundits to oppose copyright, Chiariglione says they are nothing but "Marxist." He scoffs, "How completely incommensurate with human nature."
As a teenager in Italy, Chiariglione would bicycle miles to the United States Information Service library after school and teach himself English by reading the classics. One day, roaming the stacks, he came across a poster of john F. Kennedy, with the phrase "citizens of the world," from JFK's 1961 inaugural speech, inscribed beneath the president's face. The words struck Chiariglione deeply. "Such a beautiful sentence," he tells me, as we sit at a café in Palo Alto. "It was the fìrst great influence on me." This thought comes up often when Chiariglione speaks: citizens of the world. The first time I heard it, I dismissed it as a cliché, a bit of idealistic fluff he borrowed from a dead president. But Chiariglione made me think about it differently; he has a peculiar interpretation of what "citizens of the world" means. To him, it's not a political concept. lt's a goal for engineers. The people who make cars and airplanes, and particularly the engineers who make communications networks, are, in Chiariglione's view, likely to unite the world in a way that politicians never will. Assuming, that is, the engineers work together. Such, at any rate, is Chiariglione's idea, and as far as I know, he's one of the few people who've ever thought about persuading engineers from a vast array of disciplines to cooperate on a common project. He's devoted his life to this, and the results have been fairly spectacular. Whether we know it or not, when we think about digital media, we are using Chiariglione's vocabulary. As the leader of a little-known organization called MPEG-the Moving Pictures Expert Group-he's been the driving torce behind DVD, high-defìnition television, ISDN, Internet audio, digital satellite TV, and digital cable, not to mention more than 100 industrial applications that form the infrastructure of the digital world. When I asked him how he felt about these accomplishments, he closed his eyes and thought for a moment before responding: "Is it necessary for me Io have a feeling associated with them?"
CHIARIGLIONE WAS BORN IN THE LATE 1940s, the son of a carpenter in the Italian village of Almese, on the outskirts of Turin. An exceptionally bright child, he studied hard and taught himself to speak fluent Japanese and Portuguese, and to read and write Chinese; "they were all self-learned," he says. He also speaks French and two Italian dialects. His love of languages and his unusual skills as a linguist would not, however, be the center of his professional life. Chiariglione left the humanities to pursue engineering. When 1 asked him about this change, he answered in Latin, "Litterae non dant panem." "Letters don't give you bread". He married his high school girlfriend, and hours after the wedding, they were on a plane to Tokyo so that he could complete his Ph.D. studies in engineering. Returning to Italy after graduation, Chiariglione went back to work in the video telephony department of the Centro Studi e Laboratori Telecomunicazioni S.p.A. (CSELT), which is comparable Io AT&T Labs-Research in the United States.
To facilitate international phone calls, companies from different countries have always worked in close cooperation. In the late 1970s, Chiariglione noticed that the television world, by comparison, was fractured. Color TV signals that originated in one country could not be deciphered by the television sets in neighboring nations. Inspired by JFK's words that he had seen in the library as a teenager, Chiariglione set about founding a group that could unite Europe's television audiences under one standard. On a trip to Houston in 1986, he bumped into Hiroshi Yasuda, a old friend from his student days in Japan. Yasuda was leading a standards group called JPEG - Joint Photographic Experts Group- which created a widely used format for still digital images. Chiariglione convinced his friend that moving pictures would be just as important in the emerging digital landscape, if not more, and Yasuda agreed Io help Chiariglione find support for his efforts in Japan. A loose alliance of European and Japanese engineers - 15 in all- followed, and the result was MPEG.
Over the next 12 years, MPEG grew; today it functions as a sort of conveyor belt between the worlds of research and industrialization. More than 200 researchers from companies and universities now attend its weeklong meetings, held in different locations around the world. The atmosphere is charged, as these specialists hash out the problems and sticking points in moving high-tech products from the drawing board to store shelves. Peter Schreiner, an MPEG member for several years and a research engineer with Scientifìc Atlanta, a cable TV and satellite communications company, describe the meetings as "the most intense activity you can think of ... people working 16 or 17 hours a day in order Io get accomplished what's on their schedules, the tasks that are set by Leonardo."
To appreciate how innovative MPEG was at its inception, it's necessary to understand what engineers mean by standardization. The items I see on my desk as 1 write this-a cup, a can, a bundle of rubber bands, a pen - are all the result of standards. Early in history, the basic design of a cup became standardized: It had to be hollow and have a flat bottom. This standard is simple because it governs a basic object. When it comes to integrate digital media technologies, the standards are correspondingly complex. There are many ways to design a digital television but for all of them to receive the same signal, they all need to have certain parts standardized. They all have to be able to digest the same bit stream - that is, the same amount of data within a given time frame. What Chiariglione's organizations do is determine things such as optimal bit-stream rate so that when, say, Philips or Sony begins to manufacture a new digital-TV box, it knows beforehand what rate it ought to use, as well as what rate all of its competitors will be using. If TVs weren't standardized in this way, they wouldn't all be compatible with the signals flowing from stations.
Developing the optimal standard for cutting-edge communications and media technologies is incredibly complicated and time-consuming work. It often involves trade-offs of one sort or another - when companies standardize a technology internally, these trade-offs are handled within the corporate structure. When there are clashes over ideas, nothing stops a disgruntled party from leaving, since membership in MPEG is voluntary. This is where Chiariglione comes in. He's a highly competent engineer, but his real talent is diplomacy. He has a genius for keeping many bright minds working in harmony. Barry Haskell, a senior fellow at AT&T Labs-Research, says, 'Getting all these people to work their tails off toward a common good is like herding cats. You have a lot of independent-minded people at these meetings, and the thing that drives researchers is that they want to be the guy that broke the mold and came up with the brilliant technology. MPEG doesn't allow that. [Leonardo's] a real hero in this business." MPEG member Peter Schreiner adds, "He has an incredible memory; he can be in a room of 250 people and know everybody's name. He is tireless, the amount of energy he has. If he can't outmaneuver the opposition, he will wear them down."
In the engineering community, Chiariglione is known as a quixotic and sometimes abrasive personality, but his accomplishments earn respect. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers' trade magazine, Spectrum, recently featured an interview with Chiariglione along-side one with Bill Joy, the well-regarded co-CEO and cofounder of Sun Microsystems. James Van Loo, an engineer at Sun, thinks the comparison with Joy is a fair one: " [Chiariglionel has the vision to anticipate what problem the market will want to address and the tenacity to drive out a solution in a short time frame."
"The standards [MPEG has] created are fundamental in the world of multimedia digital content. Period," says Eric Scheirer, an MPEG member who has known Chiariglione for years and an analyst at Forrester Research, a leading technology research fìrm. "Except for CDs, they are the whole world of digital content today." AT&T's Haskell compares MPEG's market penetration to that of FM radio, which changed the broadcasting landscape with superior signal range and quality. "There's no other comparison for something that sells in the millions and is all over the place. "
While the economic impact of MPEG is conservatively in the hundreds of billions of dollars, Chiariglione says he has not seen a single cent from any MPEG technologies. His work - which he does largely by e-mail at night and on weekends-is done gratis. (His full-time employer, still CSELT, where he is director of the Multimedia Services and Technologies Research Division, covers his MPEG expenses.) And while many MPEG engineers have gone on to start lucrative companies based on the technologies invented in their meetings, Chiariglione has not: "If people would see that I am making money there, they would not come [to meetings]," he says. Indeed, the MPEG environment is unusual - it blends the worlds of business and academia into a not-for-profìt consortium.
According to its rules, MPEG inventions can't be monopolized by any one company; licenses must be made available to the world at a fair price. For all the practical value of MPEG, Chiariglione's deepest interests are primarily conceptual. " Standards are the basis of modern civilization," he wrote in an essay titled "Communication Standards: Götterdämmerung?" after the Wagner opera (Götterdämmerung translates as "Twilight of the Gods"). Standards of any kind hold an almost mystical power for him. Language itself is a set of standards that governs how sounds and symbols correspond to objects and actions. "There is nothing more enjoyable than opening a new book of grammar," he says happily. "To see how the words go together, the rules. And when you discover something like that ... ah, that's beautiful." He continues in a monologue that sweeps across history: the printing press, the properties of a radio wave, the development of bas-reliefs by Greek sculptors, the Library of Alexandria, and the copyright laws of Queen Anne. (He has a head for dates and tìrsts, which he says out loud numerically: "In oneeight-six-fìve, the first telegraph was standardized. The oldest università in Italy was founded in one-two-two-two.")
It is Chiariglione's theory, in essence, that standards are necessari for order of any kind, and that an orderly society is most conducive to producine free citizens. Chiariglione sees it as his life's work to spread the gospel of standards via groups such as SDMI in order to unite competing corporations-even nations-on one common foundation. "W'hat America needs to realize is that standards are very importanti" he tells me. With standards, companies can cooperate and compete at the same time, Chiariglione believes. When they don't adapt technology standards, consumers pay the price. The VHS and Betamax wars of the 1980s are a perfect example of what can happen when the marketplace is left to its own Darwinian devices. VHS, of course, is the format widely used today, even though Betamax boasted vastly superior quality. And the cycle continues as CD video makes inroads to supersede the superior DVD.
When it comes to the information-technology industry, standards are efully underappreciated, according to Chiariglione. "The computing industry benefits from confusion" he says, arguing that a lack of standards leaves more room for fìrms to develop different products, which is you need one program to create a computer image, another to send it, another to edit it, and so on. Chiariglione readily concedes that this chaotic environment fosters innovation, but he believes it's also unnecessarily wasteful. Chiariglione's philosophy appeals to engineers, who have been trained to replace waste with effìcient machines. But it makes considerably less sense to MBAs, nourished on the notion that business is another form of war. And his reputation, which can make engineers stand up and salute, doesn't command the same sort of attention s the business types at SDMI. (One executive from a major record label downplays Chiariglione's role: "I'm of the school that anybody can get hit by a bus."). Which is partly why SDMI is unlikely to succeed.
SDMI is a mix of company executives-from the information-technology, consumer electronics, and recording industries - who are unaccustomed to cooperation. The recording industry hates piracy and wants to wipe MP3 trading clean off the Internet, while consumer electronics companies want MP3 to flourish. In light of this split, it's easy to see why Chiariglione's mission is nearly impossible. He can preach the value of standardization, but the fundamental conflict between the two industries will remain. SDMI members are reluctant to speak on the record, but happily bad-mouth one another in private. "The record companies have got this all wrong," complains one SDMI member in the computing industry. "Every new initiative comes back to them trying to dictate to he industry that only SDMI content should be playable. That means not even the legitimate MP3 stuff would be played. And you can't do that. You can't tell the consumer electronics and computer people how to use their own technology."
SDMI has already missed several self-imposed deadlines. At first, it was supposed to make an impact on the market by Christmas 1999. That was revised to this coming Christmas. Now, piracy-proof devices are slated to be widely available sometime in 2001. But not everyone is betting that promise will materialize.
Forrester's Eric Scheirer says, "From my point of view, there is no longer any chance that SDMI is going to make standards that are relevant to the industry. SDMI is not a technology group. It is for the most part lawyers and businesspeople asking themselves how they wish the world would be. There are these different competing groups with very different interests, and they have no common goal. The idea that the consumer electronics manufacturers and content providers and dotcoms were all going to be able to arrive at a solution that pleases everybody was from my point of view absurd from the beginning."
"I don't know whether it was a naïve decision or whether Hilary [Recording Industry Association of America president Hilary Rosen] pulled the wool over his eyes," says a friend and SDMI representative from a Fortune 100 company. "He is completely in over his head."
lf Chiariglione stumbles and SDMI falls, the entire content world will suffer. Jay Samit, a senior vice-president of New Media at EMI, echoes the opinion of much of the industry in his assessment of the stakes: "The real heavy lifting that we are doing is figuring out, not just for the music industry but for all intellectual property, how it can be protected [online] and made into legitimate commercial developments for digital media. What we develop in SDMI will lay the groundwork of protecting video games, home video, print, broadcast television, and pay-perview .... [W]e are just the canaries ... in the mine shaft of intellectual property on the Internet." If the present is prelude to the future, then those industries will soon be holding secret meetings of their own.
CHIARIGLIONE IS WORKING ON A PLAN of his own independent of SDMI. It germinated last summer, when he took some time off to think. He hung around his 17th-century stone house in Almese, the same home to three generations of the Chiariglione family. He spent time musing in the garden, under the shade of seven chestnut trees. He walked the vineyard on the property's fringe, and he dug his hands in the soil. In the evenings, he retired to a bamboo gazebo, equipped with three computers and online access. He came up with a plan for a new format and called it MPEG-21.
Many of the longtime members of MPEG-technology experts from the world's leading corporations-were skeptical when they fìrst heard Chiariglione's proposal. At this point, MPEG-21 is only a draft of an idea, but even on paper it's incredibly ambitious, more so than anything the group has ever attempted. Rather than respond to a particular need for a particular technology, it takes in the entire landscape of digital media and tries to frame it in one tight picture. In essence, MPEG-21 would design digital formats in a single standard that would handle any task a consumer could dream up. And, in doing so, it would reprogram the entire media experience.
Chiariglione envisions that online content will come with a second layer of coding-meta-data-in addition to encryption to keep it copyproof. Meta-data is information about information, and this additional layer governs how the content can be used. DVD movies already contain meta-data governing where they can be played, which is why a DVD bought in Paris can't be viewed on a DVD player sold in New York. Chiariglione's MPEG-21 takes meta-data protocols to another level, opening up new avenues for marketing and advertising. Imagine that, by downloading a song, you buy the right to play it ten times and receive, on the ninth play, an advertisement for three more plays. Imagine being offered the chance to buy today the rights to see, a year from now, the digital form of a movie that your favorite actor is slated to appear in, or the ability to sign up for a digital-only copy of the next album by your favorite band, even though its release is six months away.
MPEG-21 envisions coding that will enable one to use a semantic or oral description to search the Internet for content of any kind - say, the motorcycle scene in The Terminator or the Adagio from Mahler's 5th Symphony. It will bring any part of that scene or symphonic movement to the consumer in an encrypted form that can then be unwrapped when it arrives. It will use "intelligent agents" to negotiate automatically through a barter system the associated copyrights for modifying or viewing the contents and then will record the entire transaction.
It should come as no surprise that Chiariglione sees his vision as the completion of a critical stage in the history of communication. The dawning of the digital age, he believes, has made it possible for all forms of communication-written, oral, and pictorial-to be rendered by a single schematic.
Skeptics abound. One MPEG member calls this vision "boil the ocean," but adds that he still supports it, saying, "You just don't know and you're willing to wait and see." But Chiariglione is wildly excited about the potential of MPEG-21. As he swept into an explanation of its intricacies, I pulled a tape recorder from my bag; Chiariglione's eyes went wide. He raised his hands. And he said, looking at the recorder with a bemused air, "But it's analog."