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Lucent, TI team on device to rival MP3

Lucent teams with e.Digital and Texas Instruments to develop a handheld Net music device that will compete with MP3 systems.

Lucent Technologies has teamed up with e.Digital and Texas Instruments to develop a handheld Internet music device that will compete with MP3 systems.

Unlike other handheld devices on the market that play downloadable music using the MP3 format, the e.Digital device will play files compliant with the new Enhanced Perceptual Audio Coder (EPAC) specification, the companies said.

Due to ship in December, the new device, to be manufactured by e.Digital, will use Lucent's Enhanced Perceptual Audio Coder (EPAC) chip and will employ e.Digital's MicroOS file management system, Lucent said. The new e.Digital device will use a new class of Digital Signal Processors (DSPs) manufactured by Texas Instruments.

EPAC is a new version of the Perceptual Audio Coder, an audio compression technology developed by Bell Labs, the research and development arm of Lucent. Lucent said EPAC delivers higher quality audio than MP3. It uses a representation of how humans hear sound to compress music without noticeable sound degradation. The music is compressed at a rate of 11 to 1, thus reducing the transmission time/bandwidth and storage by the same ratio.

Lucent is also involved in an earlier initiative to build devices to compete with the MP3 spec. Lucent's New Ventures Group is a member of the Secure Digital Music Initiative (SDMI), the recording industry's effort to develop a secure access system for digital music in response to what it claims is the nonsecure nature of MP3. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) in December 1998 launched the SDMI.

Lucent executives said EPAC will be compatible with the forthcoming SDMI specification, due out by this fall. The RIAA said the initiative has been in the works for nearly a year.

MP3 competitors are racing to build SDMI-compliant products in time to ship before the Christmas selling season. e.Digital plans to launch the new EPAC device by December and sell it online and through traditional retail channels. No pricing has been announced. Diamond Multimedia's Rio MP3 player sells for roughly $200.

The RIAA is touting the SDMI spec as a means for paving the way for interoperability, much the same way a user can purchase a CD from any record label and play it in a CD player manufactured by any company.

As reported, a key objective of the SDMI is to provide a delivery architecture that can provide better protections for copyrighted music. The announcement is set against the backdrop of growing incidences of music piracy online, via easily obtained software that produces high-quality copies.

"The security aspects of the device will comply with SDMI," said Rachael Walkden, codirector of Audio initiatives at Lucent's New Ventures Group. "We will keep up with what comes out of SDMI."

EPAC is not the result of SDMI, but will comply with the upcoming spec, Walkden added.

"The important part is that EPAC is what we developed here at Bell Labs," said Joyce Eastman, director of audio for Lucent's New Ventures Group. EPAC was developed before SDMI was launched.

SDMI is supported by many of the big hitters in the recording industry, including Bertelsmann's BMG Entertainment; EMI Group's EMI Recorded Music; Sony Music Entertainment; Seagram's Universal Music Group; and Time Warner's Warner Bros. and Warner Music Group.

Several major and independent record labels, as well as several major consumer electronic and technology firms, support the initiative, including America Online, AT&T, IBM, Intel, Microsoft, and Toshiba.

But MP3's popularity has made it what some consider a de facto standard for music downloading online, and the format has enjoyed support from the likes of Chuck D and Tom Petty.

The recording industry has expressed concern about MP3--and in some cases taken legal action--because although the format itself is not illegal, it allows for the free, unauthorized distribution of copyright-protected material.

Of immediate concern are portable devices such as Diamond's Rio, to which users can download MP3 files and play them back on the go. The Rio is the subject of a pending lawsuit between the RIAA and Diamond.