SDMI Spec Needs Fine-Tuning

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The Secure Digital Music Initiative (SDMI) published its specifications for portable Internet-audio players, but the initiative put off until August the choice of a watermarking technology needed to implement the spec.

That manufacturers don't have all the technical details they need to develop a compliant portable underscores the initiative's late start in developing the spec, a voluntary standard for controlling the copying of copyrighted digital music distributed over the Internet. The music-industry-backed initiative, which was launched last December, set a June 30 timetable for developing a spec to allow for 1999 holiday sales of compliant portables. Despite the lack of a watermark standard, the initiative still believes its fourth-quarter goal is within reach.

SDMI's haste has also had unintended consequences for the launch of the long-awaited DVD-Audio format. The four companies involved in selecting a watermark standard for DVD-Audio postponed their technology selection so that, at SDMI's request, they could conduct tests of proposed SDMI watermarking standards. Nonetheless, a DVD Forum spokesman still believes a limited quantity of DVD-Audio players will be available in time for holiday sales.

The four companies - IBM, Intel, Matsushita and Toshiba - "originally intended to recommend a [DVD-Audio watermark] technology in June," said Jordan Rost, Warner Music senior VP of new technology, "but delayed a final decision to see if a single watermarking standard will work for both."

Also as a result of SDMI's haste, any compliant portables available in the fourth quarter won't be able to play SDMI-compliant files until sometime after March 2000. That's when the initiative plans "an initial public review" of a Phase 2 spec in which copyright-management and copy-control restrictions kick in.

The Phase 2 spec will apply to music downloaded from authorized web sites to consumer products such as car and home audio gear; future packaged media such as DVD-Audio discs and newly mastered CDs; and to PC software that downloads music files from the Internet or copies and encodes CDs into a compressed audio format.

The spec "will address the entire delivery chain," SDMI said in a fact sheet distributed on its web site (sdmi.org).

To add to the confusion, not all portables available in the fourth quarter will be SDMI-compliant. At least four companies - Creative Labs, Diamond Multimedia, Samsung and Sensory Science - plan summertime shipments of non-compliant devices whose designs were finalized before the spec was published. All four however, say future products will be compliant (see table below for their plans).

In addition, Samsung said its first two models will be software-upgradable to become SDMI-compliant. And Diamond believes its new player can be software-upgraded to comply with SDMI's requirements.

Philips has also said it plans compliant products late in the year, but details were unavailable. Details of portables planned by Schaumberg, Ill.-based I-Jam were also unavailable.

At least one marketer attributed his company's decision to ship non-compliant portables this year to the recent federal appeals court ruling that Diamond Multimedia's first MP3 player did not violate the Audio Home Recording Act (AHRA).

"The RIAA [Recording Industry Association of America] lost the legal battle twice in a row," the marketer said. "That emboldened us."

Besides that, the marketer said, "I always had doubts they would be able to complete an entire spec in the time allotted, and they didn't." Not only is the Phase I screening technology still to be selected, the marketer said in late July, but "other nitpicking technical details" have been left out.

Some of the portables on the way this year decode only the MP3 format, but others will decode multiple formats, including MP3 (see table, below.)

In addition, OEM supplier e.Digital is designing a portable that decodes Lucent New Venture's enhanced perceptual audio coder (ePAC) compression format, but e.Digital president Fred Falk points out that, because the device will use a Texas Instruments DSP, the unit could support multiple audio coders. In fact, he said, future devices could be made to play back almost any audio coder if decoding software is attached to a music file when the music file is downloaded into a player.

E.Digital hopes an SDMI-compliant portable of its design will be available to consumers in the fourth quarter.

Before any SDMI-compliant portable can be made, however, the initiative must settle on screening technology for Phase I PC software and a watermarking technology, which will identify future music files or packaged media as being SMDI-compliant and will carry usage rules for copying.

The screening technology, which is targeted for August selection along with the watermarking technology, will trigger a pop-up screen in Phase I software when a consumer tries to copy or play a compliant music file. The screen will notify the user that a Phase 2 software upgrade is needed to copy or play the compliant watermarked file. Phase 2 software, however, won't be prohibited from downloading, copying, or playing non-compliant music, including songs on legacy CD software. Future CDs, however, could contain an SDMI marker.

To help it meets its August target, SDMI asked the four companies tasked with testing potential DVD-Audio watermarking technologies to test proposed SDMI watermarking technologies, but the new round of tests, said Warner Music's Rost, "shouldn't delay DVD-Audio for the fall because we can finalize very quickly on something in August. And no DVD-Audio authoring tools would be available until August anyway."

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