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Sunday, September 12, 2004The most pivotal and critical standard relevant in the music industry today is the compression algorithm. The most common example is the ubiquitous MP3, which was a key enabler of Napster's rise in its copyright-flouting initial incarnation. MP3 is just one of an expanding array of such algorithms—more than 100 at last count—that also includes such contenders as WAV, WMA, Ogg, AAC, and AC-2. All of them use a variety of clever tricks to compress music files 90 percent or more, so that the data can be more economically transmitted over a network, such as the Internet, and stored on a computer or music player. They're all vying for a central role in the global recorded music industry, which now generates US $32 billion a year in revenues.Not since the days of the PC operating system wars in the 1980s, arguably, has a software issue held so much sway over an emerging category of consumer electronics. And this time, at least, technology will weigh fairly heavily as the marketplace sorts out winners and losers. Of the countless human pursuits touched by technology, music has been among the most profoundly transformed. Beginning more than a century ago, when Thomas Edison's phonograph gave rise to the recorded music industry, technology has brought music to the masses with steadily increasing efficiency, fidelity, and convenience. Today, the Internet, digital recording, and new storage technologies are coming together to prompt another momentous shift. It is liberating music from the last link to Edison's era: the dependence on physical, recorded media that has long confined it.Powerful alliances are being formed. And unlike many previous technology-related business battles, technology may actually be a significant factor in this one. Consider Sony Corp.'s slick new music player, the NW-HD1. Praised for its compact size, long battery life, and clever touch-sensitive controller, the device nevertheless has been widely and bitterly criticized for its choice of compression algorithm: ATRAC3, a proprietary system used by Sony alone.For the algorithms, the basic tradeoff is between sound quality and how much they can compress the music files. But there are other important considerations, including the extent to which the full-fidelity, uncompressed files can be re-created from the compressed files, how copy protection is implemented, and how secure the downloaded files are from unauthorized distribution.Once compressed, music files can be quickly and easily loaded into a compact, shirt-pocket-size player, where they are stored on a miniature hard-disk drive or in flash memory. The hard-disk-based systems, such as Apple's ubiquitous iPods, can store thousands of songs—your entire music library, probably.THE ULTIMATE FORMAT will have a high degree of lossless compression, because this attribute is essential for the futuristic scenario in which people simply store all their music on their home computers, playing it in high fidelity through their home stereos via ultrawideband.regardless of which specific flavor of compression ultimately wins, there is no question that compression will change the way we collect and listen to music. Simply put, if you're a music fan, the best is yet to come. The audio library of the future will reside in a device about the size of a deck of playing cards that contains at least 2000 hours of your favorite music, has a wireless interface that communicates with your computer and your home and car audio systems, has a battery life of at least 90 days, and costs no more than a PDA or a cellphone. It will be music to your ears.
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