April 12, 1999

Newsmaker, Leonardo Chiariglione of CSELT

By James C. Luh

The recording industry scored a clear victory in February when it persuaded Leonardo Chiariglione to be executive director of the Secure Digital Music Initiative (SDMI), a burgeoning effort in which the very future of the music business may be at stake.

The appointment was something of an irony, given the role Chiariglione himself has played in shaking up the music industry through MP3, a format for encoding music files that he helped create in 1993. In effect, the same man who opened the door to the new world of digital music is now being asked to create a lock and key for those who'd go through it.

Chiariglione (pronounced care-lee-OWN-eh) concedes he's been surprised by the speed at which multimedia has taken off on the Internet.

The marriage of the Internet with audio and video "has been an explosive mixture," he said in a recent interview in New York, where he had come to participate in an SDMI meeting. "What is happening today overcomes the most optimistic expectations that I had 10 years ago," he added.

Chiariglione was referring to his founding a decade ago of MPEG (short for Moving Picture Experts Group), a series of audio and video compression standards. Indeed, to Chiariglione, SDMI is one of the first broad-based attempts to expand Internet commerce beyond banner ads and mail order. And in Chiariglione's world-view, it doesn't stop at music.

"With SDMI, it's possible to put in place the digital infrastructure of the future to trade content," he said.

The stereotype of a technology visionary often veers to one of two extremes--the gifted yet narrow geek-savant and the broadly educated man of the world. Chiariglione, who has spent most of his career in Telecom Italia's CSELT research center, has aspects of both.

He has a formidable list of credentials as a technologist, his role in creating MPEG primary among them. But he also has a broader background and education, of which he is proud. He studied classical Greek and Latin as a student, got a doctorate in Japan, and speaks a half-dozen languages (including fluent English with only a slight accent).

That broad background may explain the ambitions Chiariglione has for SDMI. He sees it as a chance not merely to help the music industry figure out how to survive in the digital world, but as a way to unite people through technology--something he believes has not been done in the past. Taking one example, he said that television developed into a technology fractured along national boundaries and centrally controlled within those boundaries.

Chiariglione wants the next wave to be different.

"I believe I am a citizen of the world," he said, "and I am trying to implement this vague concept by creating the conditions for people to be able to communicate without technology barriers." Chiariglione, who is 56, traces his idealism to a moment in the 1960s when he found himself in a United States Information Service library in Turin, Italy, reading American books to learn English. On the wall was a poster repeating President John F. Kennedy's call for the "citizens of the world" to strive together for the "freedom of man." As he told the story, Chiariglione seemed only a little abashed by its sentimentality.

"It may seem a story that has been concocted for a purpose, but that is not true," he said. "I think that very moment changed my attitude toward the world." Colleagues say Chiariglione's seriousness of purpose is genuine.

"He really believes what he's doing is for the betterment of man," said Pete Schirling, who heads the U.S. delegation to MPEG. "You've got to admire him for that."

Creating and delivering technical specifications is rewarding, but Chiariglione said he finds the most satisfaction in collaboration.

"What is most exciting to me is taking people who have never talked to one another, people who have had their own mental evolution, their own experiences," he said. "These people come together, these people agree that it's good to have this goal, and they work, they unite to achieve that goal." Associates expressed deep admiration for how Chiariglione has managed the herculean task of coordinating MPEG, which includes more than 300 members from around the world, each with a distinct personality, all accustomed to being considered among the top experts in their field. Under Chiariglione's leadership, the pace of MPEG's work has been more like that of a business--with clear goals and timetables--than the snail's pace that characterizes other international standards efforts, said Pete Schreiner, who chaired the MPEG Audio group from 1994 to 1998.

That speed of action will be a critical skill with SDMI, since Chiariglione has promised results by the end of this year.

Schreiner remembered that there came a time when MPEG members started considering who might replace Chiariglione, given that he had spread his energies across so many initiatives. They couldn't come up with an answer.

"No one could really think of anyone with those capabilities," he said.

"There are very few people I've come across who are comparable," said Thomas Sikora, chair of the MPEG Video group. "Actually, none." Yet the same forceful, decisive nature that helps Chiariglione lead MPEG effectively, his associates say, can make him seem abrasive and stubborn.

"It takes a very strong personality to do that," Schreiner said. "That personality sometimes rubs people the wrong way." Overall, though, his peers said Chiariglione acts out of passion for what he's doing.

"Some people who don't understand his motivation and drive are at times put off by his tactics," said Schirling of the U.S. MPEG group. "If you stick around him long enough, you begin to understand his motivations are pure." Despite his confidence and resolve, Chiariglione has an ambivalent attitude toward public attention. In 1996, when the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences awarded MPEG an Emmy for its technical work, Chiariglione was at first reluctant to accept it, Schirling said.

"He was rather embarrassed by the accolade," Schirling recalled. "He had a really difficult time embracing it for the group." Nevertheless, Schirling said, Chiariglione finally agreed to accept the award with other MPEG leaders, and he had a good time doing it.

Schirling said he is looking forward to seeing how Chiariglione handles SDMI. "This is going to be a very interesting experience for him," Schirling said.

Unlike many of Chiariglione's earlier efforts, SDMI is a project he was asked to lead, rather than something he initiated. It also differs in character from his earlier projects, in that it is driven as much by the recording industry's immediate commercial interests as by a need for common technical ground.

"My way of handling this kind of project has always been, let's have a long-term vision in your mind, but address the first step," Chiariglione said.

The first step for SDMI is to create specifications for products in time for purchase at Christmas, and then to build broader specifications for products to hit shelves next year. A midrange goal is to extend SDMI to other media and to delivery methods other than the Internet.

And the long-term vision? The man of the world quickly calculated what he could lose by telegraphing his intentions, and said politely, "Allow me to keep the long-term vision to myself."