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MP3's Competitors Line Up

The MP3 file format was the first to create decent sounding music files at a reasonable size. Companies such as mp3.com actually made the file format an integral part of their branding, but it was Napster and the lure of free, easily exchanged MP3s that sealed the formats simultaneous popularity and infamy.

Andrew Fisher, business development manager for AAC at Dolby, credits MP3 with moving the huge labels in the direction of digital music. A process, which Fisher notes, may not be the cost-saving bonanza that everyone seems to believe. With the cost of a physical CD totaling only $1.50, Fisher believes that it is questionable whether digital distribution and the associated costs of DRM and piracy, will actually weigh in cheaper then loading trucks and stocking shelves in the end.

"The idea that record companies are just sitting by is incorrect. They've been spending millions, failing and then trying again," notes Fisher. One of the hitches preventing legitimate services from taking off has been their unfriendly interfaces. Fisher notes that oversights, such as the fact that Universal's Bluematter — an ACC codec licensee — used a wallet system that didn't integrate into a site's shopping cart, have caused setbacks.

The MP3 format is extremely consumer friendly, which has tarnished its reputation among the ever-villainized record executives. Not only is it easily traded, but several companies offer standard software with every CD burner that converts the files into "real" songs on a CD that can be played in the car, basement, shower, or anywhere that you're not likely to have a PC strapped to your body, but still might want to listen to music.

From the perspective of the labels, though, untethering digital music from the PC discourages CD sales and is hardly a good thing. Real Jukebox also offers CD burning applications, but the free version only offers an infuriatingly slow burning speed and consequentially the Real format is not as associated with CD burning.

MP3 like all technology, is destined to be upgraded, and several file formats including Microsoft's WMA, Real Audio, and the lesser known AAC are all lining up. ACC was created as a collaborative effort by AT&T, Dolby Laboratories, Sony Corporation, and Fraunhofer IIS, the research lab responsible for the creation of MP3. While ACC was created as a collaborative effort, Dolby has assumed the licensing and marketing responsibilities.

There are technical reasons for MP3 to be surpassed by other technologies including, improved sound quality, better compression, and a DRM integrated solution. Microsoft has billed its WMA codec as an heir apparent to MP3 because of its ability to compress music files down to a smaller size with comparable audio quality and Dolby's AAC claims that it can achieve MP3 quality sound with 30 percent less data at the same bit rate.

Fisher points out through that labels are sometimes interested in the larger files at higher bit rates. "The labels are particularly interested in AAC at 128kps and sometimes higher, because they have to compete on quality," states Fisher. Fisher also added that advances in storage allowing for up to a gig in storage on a little SD card could diminish the importance of file size in the future.

But with sound differences often registering in so miniscule that the average ear just can't tell the difference, and as the average consumer probably doesn't lose sleep over the amount of storage that their MP3 file is taking up, the heir or heirs to the MP3 throne will have as much to do with business positioning as technological advances.

To that end, Dolby announced on Monday that they have begun licensing an ACC Consumer Encoder Implementation, designed to help licensees incorporate ACC encoding into their CD-ripping applications or other consumer-targeted high-quality audio encoding applications. According to the company, the code offered in the consumer licensing implementation is designed to achieve high-quality audio with maximum encode speed.

Meanwhile, as Dolby offers increased flexibility in its licensing, a debate has been stirring regarding Microsoft's treatment of MP3 in its new operating system, Windows XP. The Wall Street Journal online addition reported last week that the quality of MP3 recordings to be made with the OS's built in software will be limited. Of course, a user could always choose to use a different application to rip their CDs.

Microsoft denies the allegation, though, and states that it is actually augmenting its MP3 support in the new OS to include the ability to edit MP3 information directly in the Windows shell, MP3 transfer to portable devices, creation of audio CD's from MP3 files, and more.

Microsoft goes on to state that the Windows Media Player 8 will be a key feature of Windows XP, and that the player will introduce support for MP3 encoding via an open MP3 plug-in architecture, enabling developers and computer makers to add MP3 encoding capabilities directly to the player. Microsoft says that it is because this is a new capability that they have included a limited MP3 encoder for testing purposes as part of the Windows XP beta.

One thing is for certain in the ongoing developments of the downloadable digital music world; the format that boasts the best content will likely take over. With that in mind, it will be interesting to see the content offering, digital rights options and file formats that the newly hyped MusicNet and Duet services will offer.

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