By Richard Menta- 7/16/01
In a quick about face, Microsoft has decided that Windows XP will allow full MP3 playback…for a price.
Citing the cost of acquiring a license to encode MP3 files from the Thomson/RCA/Fraunhofer Institute consortium that invented the format, Microsoft only allowed MP3s to be ripped at a lesser compression ratio, diminishing sound quality. The MP3 decoder was also limited as Microsoft announced it would not have full access to new Windows XP audio elements enjoyed by Windows Media Player, Microsoft's competing format that is now rolled into the new operating system.
Digital music companies and users cried foul, citing this as another attempt by the company to use the ubiquity of its operating system to capture a market segment. By disabling the MP3 format in its environment, Windows Media would attempt to become the default standard the same way Internet Explorer did with Netscape.
You are still able to download third party applications like MusicMatch to rip your MP3 files. The problem for those companies is they will have to pay to license the MP3 encoder directly rather than just tap into the one already imbedded in Windows. Rather than one license purchased with Windows XP, each third party app would have a license. Load more than one MP3 encoding app on your machine and you will have effectively paid for multiple licenses when only one is needed. We say paid because Thomson's new licensing program may may eventually mean the end of free MP3 rippers.
The backlash from the technical community and unfavorable press attention seems to have forced Microsoft to backtrack partially from this position. Partially, because the user will be required to add MP3 capabilities as a plug-in and to pay for that privilege.
Pricing has not yet been announced for the MP3 Creation Pack and DVD Decoder Pack, which will be available in October for download when Windows XP launches. Of course, since the average person probably won't go through the effort of loading, let alone paying, for the new plug-in the effect for Microsoft will mostly remain the same.
It must be pointed out here that Microsoft owns 5% of the same Thomson that invented the MP3 format, a percentage confirmed by RCA reps at a recent press meeting for upcoming RCA digital music products. This puts serious doubt that licensing costs had anything to do with Microsoft's decision to give the MP3 format sub-standard abilities on Windows XP.
With an equity stake in Thomson, it's hard to believe that an agreement could not be hammered out. "Licensing is our business", said Mark Redmond, Vice President Worldwide Audio products for Thomson when questioned about the Microsoft issue.
With hundreds-of-millions of MP3 files traded the format does have a momentum that may be difficult for even Microsoft to derail. Windows XP is certainly a very powerful tool to help do that, but the big drive over digital music now is not how best to play it on the PC, but how to liberate the music from the PC.
People have already invested heavily in the MP3 format, some with literally thousands of compressed songs ripped from CD and traded on the Net. These users want to escape the tinny speakers on their computer systems (in other words they already view the listening experience on the PC as sub-standard, regardless of format).
Users want their music to be more mobile with the ability to be played anywhere a cassette or a CD is played. That means millions of stereo, portable, and auto products will potentially fly off shelves over the next year as any music product with the words MP3 on it holds a competitive advantage to those that don't.
Consumer electronic manufacturers are investing heavily in MP3 products as the demand for them increases exponentially. The format caused an explosion of CD burners last year and manufacturers are rushing to endow their standard CD and DVD products with the ability to read MP3 files and tap into this market. Some of these products can also play WMA files, but the bet is squarely on MP3 at this moment.
If Microsoft wants to hold the digital media standard, they have to get users trading in it. Right now they aren't. Five years from now? That depends what the courts and legislators do about MP3 trading.
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