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Thomson Unveils MP3 Upgrade, MP3Pro

Thomson Multimedia (www.thomson-multimedia.com) announced that mp3Pro, an upgrade of its decade-old MP3 codec, was released on Thursday. According to the company, the new codec achieves smaller files and better sound quality than the existing MP3 codec.

Thomson said mp3PRO offers "backwards and forwards compatibility" that lets original MP3 files to play on the new mp3PRO player, and vice versa. The best audio performance is achieved when consumers both encode and decode music files in mp3PRO.

Thomson also said that it is working to integrate mp3PRO into players, jukebox products and Thomson and RCA hardware. Availability of other mp3PRO software products supporting other mp3PRO bit rates and mp3PRO-compatible portable devices, is expected later.

"Today there are more than 12 million portable MP3 players, 250 million personal computers playing MP3 files and practically every song in the world has been encoded as an MP3 file," said Henri Linde, Vice President at Thomson Multimedia. "These numbers underscore the tremendous appeal MP3 has within the global consumer marketplace — and the need for continued compatibility as we continue to advance the format. In addition to offering improved quality, mp3PRO recognizes the consumers' investment in the format by providing both backward and forward compatibility with MP3 files."

The company said that the mp3PRO encoder splits audio recordings into two parts — one part contains all the information found in regular MP3 files, to maintain complete compatibility, while the second holds high audio frequencies.

The encoding/decoding software is compatible with Windows 9X, 2000, NT, and Millennium, and encodes. WAV files into mp3PRO files at 64 kbps and plays back all MP3 and mp3PRO files. A free mp3PRO encoder/decoder is available for download at Thomson's and RCA's Web sites (www.thomson-multimedia.com and www.rca.com).

Reaction from Microsoft

But Microsoft didn't seem very impressed with MP3pro. "It's not clear that MP3pro adds anything," said Geordie Wilson, product manager at Microsoft's Digital Media division. He said that Microsoft has been developing its own codec and has achieved similar quality levels two years ago. "It's too little too late if they're just catching up where we were two years ago," he said.

But would Microsoft support MP3pro? "It's always possible," said Wilson, "[but] at this point we have no plans to support MP3pro. For two reasons: it was just released and [they] haven't had time to evaluate it and we don't see any benefit from it." Still he noted that Windows Media Player has supported MP3 playback for a long time.

From the encoding side, the new Windows Media Player 8, being built-into Microsoft's new Windows XP operating system, won't have native MP3 support. Wilson said it's using an "open MP3 plug-in architecture" to let users encode to MP3s from the player.

Wilson also said that MP3pro is missing digital rights management features, something that Microsoft's system supports natively. "I know [MP3pro] had plans to support it early on. If it isn't there, that's a critical missing feature," he said.

Meanwhile, RealNetworks, which is a bigger licensee of audio codecs, wouldn't comment on the new MP3 format. RealNetworks already supports dozens of audio codecs in its RealJukebox player (even an old Microsoft audio codec).

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