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Spinning Tunes on the Web

These Players Are Portable, but Many Digital Songs Aren't

November 09, 2000|JON HEALEY |

If you've just blown $200 or more on a portable MP3 player, you're now the proud owner of a pint-size jukebox that can't play most of the downloadable songs offered by record labels today.

That's not your player's fault--it's the labels' obsessive fear of piracy. Some have programmed their songs with electronic locks that prevent them from being copied, and others have put them in a secure format many players can't handle.

The incompatibility problem doesn't mean that MP3 players are a total waste of money today.

Instead, the problem points out how disconnected the security-obsessed record labels are from consumers who don't want to confine their music collections to the home or car. The major labels don't like MP3 files because they can be easily copied. But that's one of the reasons consumers have rallied around the format despite the sacrifice in sound quality.

Portable music players are now in their third incarnation, evolving from cassette tapes to CDs to computer files. Although CDs offer better sound quality, most MP3 players are lighter and significantly smaller.

Unfortunately, the prices have yet to drop into the sub-$80 range occupied by portable cassette and CD players. The main factor isn't the chips, which get cheaper by the day, but the memory. With cell phones and digital cameras gobbling up the supply of flash memory, most MP3 devices capable of playing an hour of near-CD-quality music still sell for $240 to $300.

The first wave of MP3 players couldn't read anything but MP3 files, which was fine until digital music started appearing in other formats.

Today, there are at least five types of digital music files in wide distribution, and at least four popular types of scrambling to secure those files against piracy. And in response, players have started to pop up with support for formats other than MP3.

The most comforting news for consumers is that all the leading players are being built with programmable microchips. That means they can download the software needed to support other formats and encryption techniques.

In the meantime, most players handle only one popular format besides MP3, if any: either Microsoft's WMA or RealNetworks' G2. They might also use software on your computer to convert formats, a process that takes an annoying amount of time and can sacrifice sound quality.

That's what happens in a Philips Rush, a lightweight square packed with attractive features but built to play only one type of file. The Rush also highlights one of the concessions manufacturers have made to the labels' concerns about piracy. As with many players, the Rush can't transfer songs back to a computer--they're locked to the memory card, meaning they can only be played from that card or deleted.

The point is to stop a player from being used to clone songs from your computer to mine. It also means you can't use your Rush to move the songs you own from one computer to another in your own house. Nor can you use it to help transfer songs that you download at work or school to your collection at home.

That's one of the key tenets of the Secure Digital Music Initiative, or SDMI, a joint effort of more than 100 record labels, software companies and manufacturers. The goal of SDMI is to develop a standard approach to copyright protection on portable devices.

But some manufacturers are leery of imposing so many limits that consumers revolt.

"There's got to be a convenient way to take your songs from one computer to another computer or another device," said Hock Leow, chief technical officer of Creative Labs, which makes a line of MP3 players. "If you cannot resolve that, consumers are going to say, 'I'm not going to buy it.' "

Nor are consumers likely to use a restricted format when there are unrestricted MP3s available for free on the Internet. And the richest sources of those files are the Web sites and services that let consumers copy songs without paying the labels, artists or songwriters.

The labels hope to tackle that issue too through SDMI. But the participants have already fallen far behind schedule in trying to develop a standard technology for detecting unauthorized copies of songs and barring them from being played on portable devices.

Ignoring the format problems and high prices, many consumers are buying MP3 players now because of one unique feature: They have no moving parts. That's key for those who want to take their music out for a run.

Targeting the exercise fiend with lots of spare cash, Nike recently introduced its PSA Play 120, a rubberized player the size of a change purse that weighs less than a Big Mac. With the built-in memory and an optional add-on, the Nike player can deliver 90 minutes of near-CD-quality music or 3 hours of FM-quality sound.

There are a couple of exceptions to the no-moving-parts rule. One is an emerging breed of portable CD player that also plays discs loaded with hours of MP3 files.

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