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Poor Interoperability Lamented In Internet Audio

1/29/2001 02:00:00 AM Eastern

LAS VEGAS -Someday, music enthusiasts will be able to listen to all the authorized downloaded music they want, when they want it, through any Internet audio portable.

But that day isn't here yet, because competing interests with their own business plans have effectively scuttled that goal for the time being, participants in a Texas Instruments roundtable acknowledged during CES.

During the invitation-only event, some of the participants, including Thomson and the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), lamented the failure of the RIAA-initiated Secure Digital Music Initiative (SDMI) to promote interoperability among portable devices.

"We created this multi-industry forum about two years ago to try to address these issues," said Matt Oppenheim, the RIAA's senior VP for legal and business affairs, but the process has been "slow moving." He blamed "competing business interests" for SDMI's failure to standardize.

"At a minimum, we want [interoperability] at the codec, digital-rights management [DRM], memory [storage], and file format levels," said Oppenheim.

Jeff Scott, Thomson's advanced audio business manager, also acknowledged the failure of the hardware and music industries to settle on interoperability standards. SDMI is populated by "members with their own business models," he said. "We'd love to see a standard evolve.but SDMI has not addressed interoperability."

When questioned after the event, the RIAA's Oppenheim agreed that SDMI's mission, in developing a portable-device spec, was not to choose a codec, DRM technology, or memory format but to define what portables and their DRM technologies must do to wear the SDMI badge.

Nonetheless, Oppenheim told TWICE, "It is within their purview to allow for interoperability, but it's not on the horizon." Developing an interoperability standard, he noted, probably would not include the selection of a memory card standard.

The music industry itself, however, is also to blame, one music company representative acknowledged. BMG new media VP Karl Slatoff called it "very difficult" for music companies to support a single codec or DRM standard given antitrust legalities.

Even so, he added, the music companies have held back the market in another way: "It has taken a long time for the record companies to make [their own individual] technology decisions."

Slatoff hailed the growing number of portable devices that deliver "multiplatform support," claiming such products are the "the only way to grow a market" in the absence of an industry standard.

For the RIAA's Oppenheim, however, multicodec multi-DRM portables aren't enough. Lamenting the proliferation of flash-memory formats, he asked of the hardware and technology industries, "What are you guys trying to do to solve these interoperability problems?"

Gene Frantz, Texas Instruments' DSP business development manager, said the technology industry can only go so far. "It's very simple to be compatible across codecs [through the use of a programmable DSP]," he said, but it's more difficult to create a device with "multiple hardware connections" to "multiple memory card formats."

Thomson's Scott acknowledged the drawbacks of multiple card formats but asked, "Who will solve it?" Thomson, he said, "can't drive a standard alone."

BMG's Slatoff said he's willing to let consumers decide on their favorite card format and stressed that a "device that plays all music" is "a great first step."

Liquid Audio product marketing VP Matthew Smith also cited the importance of such a device and said, "It's important to support multiple standards.and make [them] as transparent as possible for consumers." The industry's goal should be "a transparent consumer experience across multiple technologies, but he noted, "We're not there yet."

The RIAA representative agreed. "We need to work with technology companies to create a great user experience ... but we're not there yet."

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