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The Digital Beat: Can MP3 Survive the Times?

June 27, 2001 12:00 AM ET

The MP3 digital music format has had quite a run. It's changed an industry, ignited a DIY revolution. And, like a true rock star, it might very well burn out before it fades away.

The reason: both Microsoft and RealNetworks, two of the behemoths in the battle over streaming audio, are working hard and fast make their secure music formats the ruling force, if not the standard. Evidence came during the recent Streaming Media West conference in Long Beach, California.

RealNetworks is hoping that its new Extensible Media Commerce Language, or XMLC, which lets artists and record labels control how their music is accessed online, will pave the way to it becoming the leader in secure online media. Microsoft, meanwhile, is betting that it will have the edge in security thanks to bundling its Windows Media Player with all new Windows XP operating systems.

With support of the major labels -- who are banking on the success of online subscription services like MusicNet (backed by EMI, Warner and Bertelsmann), and Pressplay (formerly Duet, backed by Universal and Sony) to bolster the demand for streaming audio -- the companies will surely benefit from the competition.

If they have it their way, for example, fans won't get the new R.E.M. via MP3; they get it down the streams. Now, appropriately, the companies behind the original MP3 format are going to bat with a new improved version called MP3Pro, which lets users rip songs at nearly half the file size of the old MP3 format. One big problem: no new security system, like that being hyped by Real and Windows Media.

It's worth considering MP3's history to get a sense of how it found its current place. Despite the hype, MP3 is less a revolution than part of an evolution that began over a decade ago, when the first bits of music began appearing online. With the rise of Bulletin Board Services in the late 1980's, a subculture of fans would swap songs in the form of WAV and midi files. But because of these large formats and the cocktail straw sized bandwidth, a three-minute song could take hours to download.

In 1987, the Motion Picture Experts Group (MPEG) of the International Organization for Standardization in Geneva, began researching and developing a way to compress digital video. The result, in 1992, was the MPEG format. When applied to audio, MPEG could use its special data reduction program to reduce digital sound without sacrificing CD quality. MPEG-1 Layer 3 was the most powerful version of the software, capable of squeezing down a song twelve times smaller than its original size. The same three-minute song that was sent as a WAV file could now be sent in minutes.

Since MPEG was originally intended for digital video streaming, it did not catch on immediately for audiophiles. Instead, surfers flocked to new software, such as RealNetworks' Real Player and Microsoft's NetShow, which allowed them to quickly "stream" music online without suffering a lengthy download.

It wasn't until the mid-Nineties that college students on high-speed networks began rallying around MP3, which was considerably more efficient, able to mash a dozen albums onto a single CD-ROM. Like many popular music trends, the grassroots movement around MP3 soon caught the attention of e-preneurs who were looking for a new market, and record industry mavens, rocked by the potential invasion of their own.

Could this be the end of MP3's story? I doubt it. But the format's reign will surely get challenged, making it more difficult for casual bootleggers to swap their favorite tunes. Stay tuned . . .

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