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New digital album format doesn't have a prayer

The labels are reportedly planning on calling their upcoming digital album format CMX. Look for it to join the acronym graveyard in short order.

Reading through Greg Sandoval's detailed reporting of SpiralFrog's demise, I once again found myself wondering--as I did many times during the late 1990s dot-com boom and subsequent bust--how anybody could possibly have thought this was a good idea. Ad-supported music downloads that are incompatible with the iPod, the device that basically created the MP3 player market? Who would possibly buy such a thing? SpiralFrog seemed like such an obvious nonstarter, I wrote about it once in 2007 and never wasted time revisiting it. But investors were spending serious sums of money on it, right up until the end.

Album art is fine, but I'm more excited about the music in the grooves.

Apparently, some folks in the music business still haven't learned the lesson about Apple and iPod support, as demonstrated by recent reports that the major labels are planning to launch a new format for digital albums. Operating under the working name of CMX (as a friend quipped, "8-track" was already taken), the new format will allow users to browse album art, read lyrics, and so on. Basically, it's trying to duplicate some of the fun of buying and unwrapping LP records.

Unfortunately, Apple's not playing ball, but is rather working on its own competing format, code-named Cocktail.

So let's get this straight. First, it's a new format. Unless it takes advantage of existing technology like Adobe's Flash, that means users will have to download some new software or plug-in to access these files. Second, this format is meant to be consumed from your computer. But in my experience, the main reason to put digital music on a computer is in order to move it to other devices. Third--and probably most important--without Apple's support, the format won't be compatible with iTunes, the iPod, or iPhone. You can count the market share of the other players in this field on your fingers. Finally, the entire premise assumes that people aren't buying complete albums in digital format because they're not getting the fetishistic experience they used to get--unwrapping the physical object, admiring the cover, reading the liner notes. But the sad fact is that a lot of albums aren't and never were worth buying, and customers grew tired of paying $18 for one song they liked. (Chumbawamba, anyone?). Digital downloads free us from bundling practices that we never liked in the first place.

Unless there's more to the story--a tie-up with another player like Sony's X Series Walkman or Microsoft's Zune, for instance--how can anybody possibly think this will succeed?