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SDMI embarks on Phase II of universal digital music spec

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Opinion The Secure Digital Music Initiative (SDMI) this week launched the development of Phase II of its specification for a digital content copyright protection framework with a request for submissions for the screening technology that will lie at the heart of the system. The Call for Proposals (CFP) essentially describes the technical and legal framework screening technologies must fit into in order to have a chance of being adopted by the organisation. Draft proposals have a 24 April deadline with final, complete technological details to be submitted by 18 June. SDMI Phase II will ultimately define the how future digital music systems, be they PC-based software players, portable devices or hi-fi units will prevent piracy but still allow users the rights they enjoy now to copy music for personal use. At least that's the theory. The organisation's critics claim that it's the puppet of the music industry, interested either in giving the major the labels the kind of control they currently wield over the CD market, or in creating sufficient FUD that the digital music arena never makes it as a mainstream market. The SDMI naturally denies such charges. But the development of Phase I - a short-term measure designed to calm the music business' fears over the use of the MP3 format and the portable players that are based upon it - exposed the difficulties in balancing the protectionist desires of the recording labels and the mass marketing orientation of the hardware and software vendors. Quick and Dirty Phase I was timed to allow player manufacturers to get kit out into the market in time for Christmas 1999, but few managed it. SDMI Phase I compliant players are beginning to appear at last, primarily from the big Japanese consumer electronics companies. But with stacks of Korean MP3 players around that don't support SDMI, it's a wonder that the others are bothering with it. We suspect it's more about showing a willingness to co-operate than genuine support for Phase I. Phase II, however, is different in that it should be supported by the content companies as well as the player providers. Like the DVD spec and the various CD 'books', it's about defining a standard (rather than a sop, which was all Phase I was about) and is likely to have a far greater impact on the way music is sold three or four years down the line. Or possibly longer. Once the proposals are in, they will have to be evaluated and tested for compatibility with Phase I's screening technology, developed by Aris Technologies, recently renamed Verance. The screening system ensures players will play pre-Phase I tracks, and legitimate Phase I and Phase II files. Illicit copies of Phase I and Phase II tracks will be rejected. Time for Testing As yet no testing procedures have been established, according to E R Cole, manager of digital audio and media technologies at Texas Instruments' Dallas DSP R&D centre, cited by EE Times. Assuming testing gets done by September - Cole's estimate for completion - that's still to late for devices to ship in time for this Christmas, so we're clearly looking at Q1 2001 at the earliest. Incidentally, late Q1, early Q2 2001 is the timescale for the launch of Sony's PlayStation 2-based digital content distribution system. As an SDMI member, Sony's clearly aware of the how long the organisation believes the development of Phase II will take. It's not clear whether that has affected Sony's schedule for its delivery system, which depends as much on the widespread availability of broadband Net connectivity solutions as it does on SDMI Phase II, but the timeframes for both are curiously coincident. And the SDMI can afford to wait. True, the longer it takes to get Phase II done and for music and hardware companies to support it in their products, the more time the MP3 crowd has to build up support for their self-styled open approach to content, but there's little real evidence as yet - no, MP3.com's share price doesn't count - that the digital music has any appeal beyond hardcore PC users. That said, that sector is growing, and as it's likely to form the core of the next generation of music buyers, it shouldn't be ignored. The SDMI has time to take things carefully, but it doesn't have unlimited freedom to act when it feels the time is right. What's in Store The broader state of the digital music business is clearly shown by the likes of Liquid Audio and RealNetworks striking deals to promote in-store custom CD systems. As yet the content - tracks from big name artists - isn't there for such systems to take off, but it will come and DIY CD kiosks are likely to prove the vast majority of buyers' primary use of digital music. The major labels and many of the smaller ones continue to believe that they'll sell more music if they get it in front of buyers through High Street outlets. It makes no real difference if they're selling pre-pressed CDs, custom discs or digital tracks downloaded to Memory Sticks or Compact Flash cards, the point is the decision to buy and the sale are both being made through existing retail operations. Even the likes of Amazon.com aren't really suited to browsing, and, as most music industry and retail staffers will tell you, more sales are generated by folk browsing the racks than by buyers coming in to make specific purchases. In fact the real threat that digital music poses the traditional music retailers isn't online sales from the recording labels but the opportunities it opens - now you don't need shelf space for CDs - for other kinds of store to offer music. We've already seen bookshops, supermarkets and gas stations stock CDs (some well, others with abysmal selections of discs), but kiosks connected to CD-R kit allows anyone to offer a huge selection of titles. It's noteworthy the Liquid Audio's first kiosk in the UK is in TopShop, a clothing store aimed at mid- to late-teenagers and aging trendies, rather than a music shop. SDMI's role Operations like these still require the SDMI, of course, particularly as kiosk operations are likely to be sourced from databases that also provided the basis for download sales. No matter how the process of selling music evolves, the music business is set on a course of preventing piracy at source rather than dealing with illegal copying after it's taken place, and that means SDMI-compliancy across the board, from CDs to downloads. ® Related Story Prof proposes music biz ends copyright protection obsession

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