RealTime IT News

MP3 Encoders Ripping Along Without Microsoft

The music industry and its technology partners have tried unsuccessfully for years to unseat easily-duplicated MP3s as the de facto standard for downloadable music files. But Microsoft's decision to include a crippled MP3 encoder in its new operating system could backfire and give a boost to the format, say analysts and competitors.

Microsoft's forthcoming Windows XP operating system will be the first from the company to come bundled with an MP3 ripper, a program designed to extract music files from CD-ROMs and convert them into the popular MP3 format. But the big software maker has reportedly decided to severely limit the fidelity of those resulting MP3 files to just 56kbps; that's less than half the bit rate of the standard 128 kbps "CD-quality" files output by most encoder software.

According to the Wall Street Journal Thursday, Microsoft opted to license only the low-fidelity MP3 codec from patent-holder Thomson/Fraunhofer to save on royalty fees, and as a Trojan horse to coax users to adopt its higher fidelity, copyright-protected Windows Media Audio format.

But Gary Brotman, a spokesperson for MusicMatch, which markets an all-in-one music jukebox that includes ripping capabilities, says Microsoft's strategy will help, not hurt, the marketing efforts of other music jukebox developers, and, in the process, the popularity of the MP3 format.

"We would imagine that our sales and downloads would increase, because people are still looking for a high-quality MP3 encoder to digitize their music collection, and we've been offering a full, 320kbps encoder in our free version since March of last year," said Brotman.

Similarly, Rolf Hilchner, president of Ashampoo, a German developer of a popular shareware MP3 jukebox, believes that consumers will reject Microsoft's low-fidelity encoder, although he concedes that the market for MP3 rippers may be cooling off.

"It's mostly about marketing. People expect an all-in-one product with a ripper, a player, and a burner. But there are so many MP3 files on the world market that there's less of a reason for a ripper any more," said Hilchner.

Ashampoo's MP3 Studio Deluxe program, which has been downloaded 10 million times, according to Hilchner, is among the more popular of the dozens of shareware MP3 jukebox programs currently available from software repositories like download.com. Stats at that site show four MP3 rippers with more than a million downloads, while 20 programs are in six-figure downloads. Those numbers don't include downloads direct from the developer or other distribution methods.

Add to these totals the numbers racked up by the likes of RealNetworks, with its market-leading RealJukebox, or MusicMatch, which claims 18 million registered users and which has distribution deals with PC makers including Dell, HP, Gateway, and IBM. The installed base of these tools, and the billions of MP3 files they've already created, will make efforts by Microsoft, RealNetworks, and Liquid Audio to unseat MP3 with their proprietary and copyright-protected formats difficult, according to Lee Black, an analyst with the online music research firm WebNoize.

"The market is still very fragmented, but the common denominator will remain MP3 for years. Most of the content out there is in MP3. You've got billions of files going over Napster every month and its all MP3s. And you'll have to get rid of all that content before you can create a new standard for the industry," said Black.

While MP3 may still have some years left, even one of the earliest proponents is turning its back on the format and getting into the MP3-replacement game. As part of its plan to relaunch as a subscription-based service, Napster is currently developing a new file type, to be called .NAP, which will consist of a standard MP3 file inside a copyright protection wrapper.