There have been many words written about the recording industry's new digital music standard, which was released on July 13. But I haven't seen much about the implications for the computer industry itself. Could this new music standard be a precursor of big changes for PC software?
The new spec was developed by the Secure Digital Music Initiative, or SDMI, a group of more than 100 companies. It's a standard for digital music that protects against most forms of unauthorised copying.
The influence on the PC industry could be significant. After all, PC software makers haven't been able to come up with a widely accepted form of copyright protection in 20 years. By contrast, the SDMI standard was developed in just about six months.
A little history may put this in perspective. Back in the 1980s, some software products - notably Lotus 1-2-3 for DOS - used "hidden files" for copy protection. The hidden files were transferred from the original product's diskettes to a user's hard drive. Without the hidden files, the product couldn't be installed again.
But copy protection was soon abandoned by most US software makers, partly because the hidden files couldn't be easily backed up and restored by network administrators. Other methods - such as dongle extensions on printer ports - were clumsy and hard to network, so they didn't widely catch on. (Copy protection, though, is still common in some parts of the world outside the US.)The recording industry, faced with its own concerns, felt an urgent need to protect the copyright of digital music. With the introduction of Diamond Multimedia's Rio player in December, music could easily be played in a digital MP3 format. (See http://www.infoworld.com/printlinks.) Because MP3 files contain no security against unauthorised copying, the recording industry feared that pirate Web sites would distribute the contents of entire CD collections for free.
In the PC software field it's estimated that at least one unauthorised copy of software is made for each paid-for copy. Some software users have argued that this widens the base for software, which is eventually paid for when upgrades are needed. But the lack of copyright controls may work against smaller developers.
Whatever the merits of free distribution, SDMI is said to allow both free and copyright-protected music to be distributed.
SDMI-compliant portable players that will be on sale for this year's Christmas season - called Phase 1 devices - will play both MP3 files and new recordings embedded with Phase 1 codes.
SDMI will support a more secure Phase 2 standard by the second quarter of 2000. A user can convert a Phase 1 device into a Phase 2 device simply by playing a Phase 2-encoded song and responding to a prompt. A Phase 2 device will still play MP3 files, but will not play Phase 2-encoded songs that have been copied without authorisation. All big-label music may soon be Phase 2-encoded.
Lotus-style copy protection failed in the US because it relied on software-only methods. By contrast, SDMI relies on the cooperation of hardware.
Each SDMI-compliant player must contain read-only code that respects "rules" embedded within digital audio.
The SDMI guidebook says this can lead to new business models for musicians: "try-before-you-buy, listening rights for a certain period of time, subscriptions, rent-to-own, etc". This sounds a lot like business models that many PC software publishers and shareware authors have tried or wanted for years.
I recommend that you read the details on SDMI for yourself. To do this, go to www.sdmi.org. Click "Public Information", then click "Specifications and related documents". For a five-page outline of the spec, download the "Guide to SDMI". For complete details, download the 35-page "SDMI Portable Device Specification". These files require Adobe's Acrobat PDF Reader.
If you don't have it, go to http://www.adobe.com/prodindex/ acrobat/alternate.html