Opinion: MP3 death watch
April 9, 1999
by Jimmy Guterman
(IDG) -- If one thing is certain in the battle over Internet music, it's that the Recording Industry Association of America's new audio format, the Secure Digital Music Initiative, is doomed. The RIAA's attempt to head off the MP3 juggernaut with a standard that no one is using and a standard from which many of its members are already diverging will go away quickly, as do most RIAA attempts to bend technological advances to fit its antiquated notions about copyright.
Over the past 20 years, the music industry supported the abandoned spoiler signal method and caused the elimination of DAT as a consumer medium because of onerous copyright-protection requirements. Other new hardware formats Philips' DCC, Sony's MiniDisc likewise have failed to catch on, as fears over copyright infringement overwhelmed the promise of the new technologies. If the RIAA ran the movie industry, it would have tried to quash VCRs, and the enormous revenues that video stores generate for film copyright holders might never have been realized.
And they're at it again. Late last month, a RIAA report asserted that MP3 is cutting into CD sales, pointing to the Internet and MP3 as contributors to a slow decline in the proportion of CD purchases made by 15- to 24-year-olds. The RIAA also says it is considering legal action against Lycos over its MP3 search service.
But reports like this aren't going to help RIAA win any converts to SDMI. Over the coming months, with well-known performers pressuring for MP3 distribution, the competing standard will go the way of all attempts to "close" content on the Net.
But what of MP3? In the short run, the format is likely to flourish. Its expected inclusion as a native format in the RealPlayer and the support it receives by all but the very top tier in the music industry ensure that the flow of MP3 files onto the Net will remain unchecked.
But two years from now, MP3 will be as dead as push technology is today. The day traders waiting for the MP3.com IPO might want to think twice before they throw their graduation money at the company. Consider the risks.
There is a small possibility that the RIAA will succeed in its attempt to ban MP3 players, evidenced by its lawsuit against Diamond Multimedia, which makes the Rio player. As someone who bought a Rio and had to deal with its sub-CD sound, flimsy software tools and ergonomic nightmare of an interface, I want to sue Diamond not because of any copyright reasons, but because the product stinks.
Assuming that the Rio slips past the lawyers and Diamond prevails in the suit, the player will have to be upgraded. If the suit succeeds, the market for MP3 devices in general will evaporate. In short, the RIAA should be as worried about the Rio player as the Democratic Party is worried about Lamar Alexander.
MP3 advocates brag that the medium offers sound that's almost as good as a CD. But more than 15 years after CDs appeared, a format that's almost as good might be dead on arrival. Sony's MiniDisc, for example, boasts near-CD quality sound and has been a huge failure. Near-CD quality might be acceptable on tinny PC speakers, but as the lines between PCs and entertainment centers blur, something almost as good isn't going to cut it. Although MP3 files are compressed, they are sized in megabytes, not kilobytes. Until broadband is ubiquitous, MP3 can't fly. It needs to stream so people can get the music immediately, not half an hour after they begin downloading.
Most of all, file formats don't stand still and they are often irrelevant. When people say they like Excel (OK, nobody actually likes Excel, but bear with me), they don't say that the super-duper XLS file format is the reason they like it. People like a program because of what it does. This fetish over file type will crumble when new formats with better compression and improved clarity appear. MP3 is a means, not the end.
Digital music distributed over the Net is as ideal as electronic mail over the Net, and smart, motivated people are experimenting with clever ways to solve legal and technical problems. But don't worship at the altar of MP3. Think of music the same way you think of e-mail. It isn't important whether you get your e-mail via a client program like Eudora, a Web-based system like Hotmail or a command-line program like Pine. What's important is that you get your e-mail.
Better distribution methods than MP3 will appear. Don't let hysteria over a file format prevent you from enjoying it.
Jimmy Guterman (firstname.lastname@example.org) is president of the Vineyard Group, an editorial consultancy. He plans to sell his Rio player on eBay.
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