Sony enters digital music contest with MP3-beater

Start of SDMI talks prompts flood of MP3-wannabe solutions

Members of the Secure Digital Music Initiative (SDMI) will today meet in Los Angeles to begin the process of thrashing out a universal standard for compressing, encrypting and protecting music. But participants are already touting their own technologies. Earlier this week, Liquid Audio announced it was working with Texas Instruments to develop a digital music player (see earlier story). And yesterday Sony announced its own copyright protection system. Sony's entry into the SDMI race is codenamed MagicGate. It's designed for consumer electronics kit, including Internet-enabled hi-fi separates and systems, and portable players like the Rio. Sony is also working on a version of MagicGate, called OpenMG, to protect tracks downloaded into a PC. At the heart of both systems is an authentication system hard-wired into silicon. The device checks that downloaded files are correctly encrypted and were received from a MagicGate-compliant source. The MagicGate chip could easily be added to music players, said Sony. For PCs, it would be built onto an add-in card which would automatically encoded MagicGate files stored on the computer's hard disk or other storage media. "Promotional tracks could be limited to a single playback, whereas other content could be played-back freely, a certain number of times or over a limited playback period," said a Sony spokesman. Backing up this client-side technology is Sony's SuperMagicGate system, which handles all the copyright management, distribution, data encryption and e-payment processing at the server end. Sony's name will naturally carry much weight with the SDMI steering committee, but the company will need to work hard to persuade the committee to back MagicGate. While a hardware-based technology will appeal to the music industry, consumer electronics companies may baulk at Sony's licence fees -- consider the furore provoked by Apple's decision to levy a royalty for the use of FireWire/IEEE 1394 -- and IT vendors won't be too keen on adding extra, potentially expensive add-in cards to their systems. For the SDMI format to work, it has to be universal and -- for music buyers -- very cheap, otherwise they'll stick with MP3, the very opposite outcome of what the SDMI was formed to create. MagicGate, if it makes it to the mainstream, could become cheap enough for hi-fi vendors to support -- they tend to be happy paying royalties for new technologies provided all their competitors are paying it too, and they all will -- but it's hard to see suppliers of cheap PCs doing the same. They will argue the technology is an optional extra, and once it's perceived as such, any hope of universality goes straight out the window. Then there's SuperMagicGate, which appears to do exactly the same thing as IBM's Madison Project (see IBM's Project Madison: the music industry's Manhattan Project?). Madison will begin public trials this Spring, with Sony's support. Indeed, it's backed by all the major global recording companies. ®

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