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Mixed reviews for new digital audio format

Organizations such as the Optical Storage Technology Association are pushing a new CD compatibility specification called MultiPlay, but analysts are lukewarm on its potential impact.

Amid the growing popularity of digital music, there is a move afoot to develop formats that would enable audio files to be played on consumer CD and DVD players as well as on personal computers.

Organizations such as the Optical Storage Technology Association (OSTA) are pushing a new CD compatibility specification called MultiPlay. But analysts are lukewarm on its potential impact.

Industry executives backing the MultiPlay initiative counsel patience and say the current specification lays the groundwork for a new digital audio format, due for release next March.

MultiPlay is a specification and logo that will identify consumer CD and DVD players able to play CD-Recordable (CD-R) and CD-ReWritable (CD-RW) discs.

Owners of CD or DVD players have complained of problems trying to play a CD-R or CD-RW disc. This occurs because some consumer CD and DVD players are designed to play only pressed or label-released discs, but not CD-R or CD-RW discs.

With the new specification, consumers will be able to identify CD or DVD players that can speak the same language as their PC counterparts. MultiPlay targets manufacturers of consumer CD and DVD players as well as makers of computer-CD-recording software and media.

To carry the MultiPlay logo, CD players that play audio or text must also be able to play CD audio and CD text on CD-R and CD-RW discs. And DVD players that play CD audio and VideoCD must also work with CD audio on CD-R and CD-RW discs.

"This new specification will help to prevent future headaches for consumers, but the compatibility problem that MultiPlay solves hasn't been a big problem so far," said Gartner analyst P.J. McNealy. He added there still isn't a significantly large number of consumers recording music from a PC to CDs.

"The concept is too cutting-edge," he said.

MultiPlay may prove to be more of a marketing move than a pure technology initiative.

"If the (MultiPlay specification) means there will be a standard for burning CDs and it is marketed in a way to consumers so they see it as a simple, one-click way to convert digital files, then I commend it," said Aram Sinnreich, an analyst at Jupiter Communications.

Jupiter has predicted the penetration of writable optical drives will vastly exceed the spread of portable MP3 players for at least the next five years.

Growth has already been impressive, according to NPD Intelect data. The research firm pegs growth of CD-R and CD-RW drives from 1999 to 2000 at 77.5 percent.

"Making digital music portable has always been one of the greatest challenges," Sinnreich said. "The success or failure of (selling) digital music will hinge on how easy it will be for consumers to burn their stuff to a CD."

But while MultiPlay is likely to win the support of consumers, it will pose yet another front in the recording industry's continuing battle to limit music piracy over the Internet.

With the growing use of music-swapping services such as Napster and others, the recording industry may lose $3.1 billion in potential sales by 2005, according to a study released earlier this year. The Recording Industry Association of America is deeply embroiled in protecting songs against unauthorized copying, developing technologies to control the spread of pirated music.

None of the technologies proposed--including sophisticated digital-rights management tools such as digital bar codes--is likely to prove infallible. The RIAA-backed Secure Digital Music Initiative is pushing forward to develop protective technologies, but has been besieged by both internal differences and outside criticism.

Felix Nemirovsky, chairman of the OSTA MultiRead subcommittee, said that MultiPlay is just the first step toward what more people are looking for: a digital audio standard, which is up next for review by OSTA.

OSTA has reviewed the first proposed draft of a planned compressed digital audio format that the association plans to show off at the upcoming Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. The final format is expected to be ready in March 2001.

Nemirovsky went on to say that the CDA (compressed digital audio) standard will enable consumer CD and DVD players to play digital audio formats, such as MP3 and WMA (Windows Media Audio), more quickly and efficiently. In addition, navigation of audio files on CD-R and CD-RW discs will be improved through the use of play lists that can be arranged by the user on a PC to be played on a CD or DVD player.

OSTA has considerable weight behind it, as companies such as Panasonic, Sony, HP and Kodak are members of the association.

News.com?s Sandeep Junnarkar contributed to this report.