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The MP3 Revolution

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June was a remarkable month in the short history of MP3. Racing to create a commercial music-downloading solution in time for the holidays, music-industry executives and Internet start-ups converged mid-month on La Jolla, Calif., for a two-day ”MP3 Summit.” Meanwhile, massive record labels cut deals with tiny tech upstarts, AOL threw buckets of money around, and a blizzard of new music players hit computer screens. No one knows what the future will bring — and if they say they do, they’re lying — but here are some of the current pieces of the MP3 puzzle:

The Sprint to the Fourth Quarter
The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) has been struggling to develop an industry-wide technical standard called the Secure Digital Music Initiative (SDMI), which would provide copy protection, limit distribution of music files, and provide royalty payments to labels and artists. But as SDMI has bogged down in a quagmire of indecision (it finally announced a unified copy-protection plan for portable players June 28), record companies — eager to have their music commercially available on the Internet before Christmas — have split from the RIAA and partnered with individual tech companies. Sony Music Entertainment has formed an alliance with Microsoft; Universal Music Group and Bertelsmann have teamed with InterTrust; and, on June 21, EMI cut a deal to make its vast back catalog of tunes downloadable via Liquid Audio’s front-end software. Unfortunately, this means the major record labels are competing to deliver music over the Internet with incompatible formats — exactly what SDMI was intended to forestall.

Start Your Player
It used to be that all you needed to listen to MP3 music files on your computer was a free player like Nullsoft’s scrappy Winamp (http://www.winamp.com). But when Nullsoft was bought by America Online June 1, it was the latest shot fired by a big-name tech company in the player wars. Real Network has brought out its Real Jukebox (www.real.com), Microsoft has its Media Player (http://www.microsoft.com/windows/windowsmedia), and Apple recently beefed up Quicktime 4.0 (http://www.apple.com/quicktime). In addition, there’s MusicMatch’s Jukebox 4 (http://www.musicmatch.com) and players from Liquid Audio (http://www.liquidaudio.com) and AT&T’s a2b Music (http://www.a2bmusic.com). The glimmer of good news here is that most of these players anticipate handling the differing digital formats seamlessly. Translation: You’ll still be able to listen to your old MP3 files.

Hardware
What’s really got the record companies scared is MP3’s leap off the computer. At the summit, more than a dozen vendors showed off their portable MP3 players — all priced around the magic $200 mark for the Christmas buying season. The best known is Diamond Multimedia’s Rio, a sub-Walkman-size unit that plays up to an hour of MP3 files. But I-Jam MultiMedia’s IJ-100 is a combination MP3 player and FM radio, Creative Lab’s Nomad can hold two hours of music, and Empeg’s Empeg Player is an MP3 player for your car that stores a whopping 70 hours of music. Any questions about these devices promoting piracy were scuttled June 15, when a U.S. appeals court definitively put the kibosh on the RIAA’s legal assault against the Rio player.

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