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mp3PRO Launch Pushed Back

7/09/2001 02:00:00 AM Eastern

Finalizing the mp3PRO codec is taking longer than expected, likely pushing back the launch of new RCA-brand mp3PRO-equipped Internet audio portables to 2002 from late 2001, Thomson said.

In another unwelcome development, Thomson said it discovered that not all currently available firmware-upgradable portables will be upgradable to mp3PRO. Thomson nonetheless expects to make mp3PRO software upgrades available sometime later this year for whichever RCA portables are found to be upgradable to mp3PRO.

Thomson, which will licenses the technology to other CE makers, believes the wait for mp3PRO will be worth it. Compared to MP3, mp3PRO will double the music-storage capacity of portables, delivering 128kbps MP3 performance at a 64kbps datarate.

During the International Consumer Electronics Show, where the company demonstrated a beta version, Thomson said it believed the codec would be finalized in about 90 days and available in the second half in portables. But that timetable has changed.

"It's software," a spokesman said. "Sometimes it doesn't stick to your schedule." Delivering it in products, he added, "isn't just a codec issue," he added. "You have to deal with a jukebox software company and a chip maker."

Once the final version is completed, he said, Thomson will test its current firmware-upgradable products to determine which can be upgraded to play mp3PRO files "in their full glory."

Thomson attributed the change in expectations to "how it [codec development] turned out," the spokesman said. "Some of our current products probably support mp3PRO, but we don't know which yet."

Meantime, "we are working on 2002 products with out-of-the-box mp3PRO support," he added.

In its upgradable portables, Thomson uses Texas Instruments programmable processors, and TI executives said they believe Thomson's firmware-upgradable models will probably support mp3PRO.

Chris Schairbaum, TI's worldwide marketing manager for Internet audio, said mp3PRO upgradability depends on a programmable processor's design and a CE manufacturer's implementation of it.

Two chip-design factors influencing mp3PRO upgradability are computing power and memory. "Computing power is not a limitation for our programmable processors," said Randy Cole, TI's chief technologist for Internet audio. "Ours have more than enough power for mp3PRO." However, not all of TI's programmable processors might have enough memory available for an mp3PRO upgrade, he noted.

Another factor determining whether a programmable processor can be upgraded to mp3PRO is where the portable player stores the codec. If a CE manufacturer chooses to store codecs in ROM rather than in flash memory, then the device won't be upgradable.

TI and Cirrus are the two main suppliers of programmable processors for Internet audio portables.

For nonportable hard-drive jukeboxes, upgradability to mp3PRO won't be a problem, Cole said.

Thomson and the Fraunhofer Institute, the co-developers of MP3, are working with a third company, Coding Technologies, to develop the mp3PRO codec. Coding is applying its codec enhancement technologies to the basic MP3 patents owned by Thomson and Fraunhofer.

The mp3PRO codec will support datarates of 32, 40, 48, 56, 64, 80, and 96 kbps in stereo. A datarate of 128kbps, which MP3 supports, won't be needed because 64kbps will deliver near-CD 128kbps MP3 quality, Thomson said.

In the meantime, Thomson posted a demonstration mp3PRO encoder/decoder at www.thomson-multimedia.com and rca.com. The demo version supports only a 64kbps datarate, and music files must first be converted to a WAV file before being converted to an mp3PRO file.

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