Microsoft 4.0 offers MP3 competition

Positioning it as having the industry’s best audio quality for the digital delivery of music and one that thwarts piracy, Microsoft unveiled its Windows Media Technologies 4.0 delivery format Tuesday night with a lavish presentation at the House of Blues.

The format, viewed as a direct competitor to the widely established MP3 technology, also affords a rights management system where artists or record labels can track users and get payments.

The music industry is struggling to find a technology that offers security and allows artists and record labels to make money from the downloading of tunes off the Internet.

Earlier this year the recording industry launched the Secure Digital Music Initiative, a consortium of tech companies, hardware firms and major music congloms whose goal is to find the preeminent technology to allow the secure digital distribution of music and one that protects artists’ rights.

At stake is a piece of what is expected to be a $2.2 billion pie by the year 2003.

“(This technology) represents clear and tangible innovation for the consumer,” said Jim Allchin, senior veep at Microsoft, adding that the 4.0 technology also protects content providers.

The 4.0 technology also will permit downloading music files in half the time as MP3 files by incorporating the most advanced compression technology available. Typically a standard 3-1/2-minute song takes about 20 minutes to download as an MP3 file.

The 4.0 will allow twice as much music to be stored on portable players such as Diamond Multimedia’s Rio device. The device is capable of storing more than an hour’s worth of music as MP3 files.

The format has been endorsed by more than 20 music outfits, a group largely composed of indie record labels and farm team artists.

Many of the major record companies have refused to back Microsoft’s play, suggesting that its audio technology still fails to meet the industry’s need for secure transmissions. However, many of the industry’s online execs were present at the splashy event.

TVT Records chief Steve Gottlieb said the piracy aspect so frequently cited by label execs is much ado about nothing.

“The industry is overreacting to concerns about piracy and loss of control,” Gottlieb said. “The Internet offers a completely new and unique way of sharing the experience of music … The movement will prove to be unstoppable because the ability to instantly share music with people … is irresistible.”

Gottlieb’s firm provided the lion’s share of music for the presentation.

Microsoft execs also bowed a new and improved video- and music- streaming technology, which will be bundled with 4.0. The upgraded technology allows songs to be heard (or videos viewed) on a personal computer but not downloaded onto the computer’s drive for storage.

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