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Music downloaders hit by acronym cacophony

These days music downloaders must be familiar with an alphabet soup of compression technologies.

In the age of instantaneous Internet downloads, music fans have more to consider than just the name of the artist when they buy a recording.

They must also familiarize themselves with a new lingo of geek-speak--an alphabet soup of compression technologies, codecs and DRM--if they want to play a song at all.

A format war has broken out among online music vendors, with competing compression and antipiracy software determining what songs play on what devices.

The latest to enter the fray is Sony. On Monday, the Japanese consumer electronics giant prepared to launch its Connect online music store in France, Germany and Britain.

Using a proprietary technology called ATRAC, Sony has begun selling song downloads that play only in Sony-branded devices, such as its Walkman.

"These different music formats are a lock-in. The stores use different software to sell their hardware," said Rist Brouwer, managing director at DMDSecure, a Netherlands-based company that specializes in compression and protection codes.

Sony says that with ATRAC a consumer can store more songs on a PC or digital music player while retaining the best sound quality. It is also easy on energy consumption, allowing hours more playing time on a single charge than rivals' technology, Sony says.

"ATRAC is certainly part of our marketing message," said Robert Ashcroft, Sony's European manager for network applications and content services. "When you have the better technology, you want to shout it from the rooftops."

Apple made similar remarks when it launched iTunes Music Store last year, saying it would use AAC compression format and Apple's FairPlay software to protect songs against piracy. The songs can only be played in its iPods.

Microsoft's MSN Music Club sells songs encoded in Windows Media Audio, which is available in a wide selection of players. It too claims its compression codec is the best.

Industry specialists take the claims with a pinch of salt, noting that ever-improving technology is constantly blurring the distinction of which technology is best.

"All the different formats roughly offer the same sound quality at the same file size," said David Mallinson, a software consultant at RealNetworks. Real itself is one of the earliest music and video compression software companies.

Songs from Internet music stores are typically compressed by a factor of more than 10 to enable faster downloads, but they all claim the quality loss is hardly discernible to the human ear.

Sony says its latest ATRAC format can compress a song to roughly one-thirtieth of the CD version and still retain reasonable sound quality--higher quality can be obtained by a less severe compression.

Internet message boards have become rife with consumer chatter about their good, bad and ugly experiences with the new technologies. Sony, for one, is pleased the average music fan has turned decidedly geekier and says the more knowledgeable consumers will become loyal users of its ATRAC technology.

But using acronyms to market music can be a risky proposition, particularly once consumers learn that the music they bought on the Internet is shackled and bound compared with free-roam compact discs.

Others could be turned off by the realization that new technologies will determine whether a Jimi Hendrix download plays on a certain player.

"The diffusion of different compression and antipiracy systems will hardly be understood by consumers," predicted Giovanni Ziccardi, professor of Legal Informatics at the School of Law of the University of Milan, Italy.

Story Copyright  © 2004 Reuters Limited.  All rights reserved.

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