Industry digital music standard wobbles on

After two years of proposals, meetings and controversy, the Secure Digital Music Initiative -- SDMI -- may soon become a major player in the Internet music arena.

          After two years of proposals, meetings and controversy, the Secure Digital Music Initiative -- SDMI -- may soon become a major player in the Internet music arena. The technology is nearly ready for the market, according to Leonardo Chiariglione, the executive director of SDMI, and is already available, in an early form, in some devices.

          Due to uncertainty about the technology and its implications, SDMI had ceded the spotlight in the digital music realm to such rivals as MP3 and Napster Inc. But SDMI returned to center stage during the last week with the announcement of the Hack SDMI challenge, in which the organization offered US$10,000 to any hacker able to crack the technology's encryption code.

          However, the question remains whether this time SDMI is in the spotlight to stay.

          SDMI is the music industry's response to the challenges posed by the digitisation of music. In the future, many, and possibly all, compact discs will be SDMI-compliant, meaning that each song will have a "watermark" embedded in it. When songs are copied to a computer, this watermark will govern how a song may be copied and played, and who has to pay for it and when.

          Since it was first announced in December 1998, SDMI, a body composed of more than 180 companies, has developed slowly. This is because it is difficult to create a consensus among such a large group on the technical and political issues involved, said Mike Reed, the vice president of marketing for the Rio division of S3, makers of portable MP3 players and an SDMI member.

          Not only that, but there are many consumer issues which have yet to be resolved, Reed said. SDMI, as currently composed, would not allow the playing of existing MP3 files on SDMI-compliant players. This will be difficult for consumers to accept, he said, because they already have music libraries that they will want to listen to.

          SDMI also needs to be easier for consumers to understand and use, he said. People do not want to have to keep track of their copying, he said, referring to the current specification that would limit the number of times a file could be copied. Such limits have raised concerns that SDMI will fundamentally alter consumer rights. SDMI needs to address those concerns, Reed said.

          But, according to SDMI's Chiariglione, the scale of copying allowed by the Internet and digital music changes everything. People cannot justify illegal copying or sharing just because they are able to do it, he added, noting that such a position is "naive, at best."

          That SDMI's executive director and one of its member companies can have such different views of the technology's readiness underscores how difficult it is to find consensus on the subject. Some resolution may be arrived at, however, at the next SDMI meeting, Oct. 11-13 in Los Angeles. At that meeting, issues bound to be discussed include the Hack SDMI challenge and implementation of Phase 2 of SDMI, which will bar the playback of non-SDMI music files on SDMI-compliant devices.

          If these difficulties can be overcome, though, the future looks bright to all involved. Chiariglione sees SDMI as opening new relationships between businesses and users.

          "SDMI is about giving opportunities to sell music directly to customers," he said.

          S3's Reed is guardedly optimistic.

          "If executed right, (SDMI will make) more content available in a very simple way and very efficient manner for consumers," Reed said.

          But, at least for now, that seems like a big "if."

          SDMI, in San Diego, California, can be reached at 1-858-826-2655, or http://www.sdmi.org. S3, Santa Clara, California, can be reached at 1-408-588-8000, or http://www.s3.com.

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