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Believe it or not itís more than a quarter of a century since Sony launched the Walkman cassette player, and with it the seemingly endless debate over music piracy. Whiskery, hissy analogue tape has now been firmly supplanted by various digital personal stereo technologies, including flash memory and hard disc based devices but far from making things easier the apparently simple desire to listen to your favourite tunes on the move is now a lot more complicated.


In short itís a nightmare and those wishing to stay on the right side of the law and pay for their music face being penalised by record companies and manufacturers of personal stereos in an attempt to protect their interests and win market share. If the situation continues there is a very real chance that the owners of some personal stereos could become victims in one of the consumer electronics industryís all too regular format battles.


Until a couple of years ago most music available for download from the Internet was encoded using the MP3 format. The trouble was almost all of it was pirated but record companies clearly didnít anticipate the phenomenal growth in demand for music downloading. They were slow to respond and rather than hopping aboard and taking control of the bandwagon they sought to make the problem go away by forcing the pirates out of business.


It was obvious to everyone, except perhaps music industry executives, that this strategy was doomed to failure and the result is a complete mess. Piracy continues, albeit on a smaller scale but there are now dozens of companies legally selling music tracks and albums online that may or may not be compatible with the hundreds of digital personal stereo players on the market.


In order to protect and control access to their wares some online music stores use proprietary music file formats and digital rights management (DRM) systems, obliging users to download software to decode and organise tracks before they can be transferred to a player. Finding a particular track can also be a hit and miss affair as music download sites are limited by their agreements with the record companies, so no one source can hope to adequately cover all artists or musical genres.


Itís not cheap either, at least not in the UK, where tracks generally cost between 69 and 99 pence each (compared with as little as 25 pence from some US music stores). That means that the cost of downloading an album -- and remember the quality of downloaded music is inferior to that of Compact Disc -- can be the same or even more than buying the original CD. Downloading a track doesnít necessarily mean that you own it either. In some instances you may only listen to downloaded tracks on a PC for as long as you continue to pay a subscription fee and there may be limitations on copying tracks to a CD.


Itís difficult to say how the market will develop but for anyone considering buying a personal stereo the key point to bear in mind is that the old adversaries Apple and Microsoft are at the centre of the current debacle, and itís further complicated by Sony, which is trying desperately to maintain its status in the market it helped to create.


If the ubiquitous Apple iPod takes your fancy then be aware that you can normally only download music from Appleís iTune web site, which only sells AAC (Advanced Audio Coding) music files. Most other digital personal stereos are designed to play WMA (Windows Media Audio) files, which are sold by the majority of download sites and used by the Windows Media Player to Ďripí or copy CDs. Nevertheless some sites add an extra layer of encryption to WMA files so they only play on devices that are DRM compatible, something that isnít always clearly explained, either by download sites or player manufacturers. Sony players use the ATRAC (Adaptive Transform Acoustic Coding) format, which effectively ties users to Sonyís ĎConnectí download site.


Fortunately virtually all digital personal stereo players can play MP3 tracks and thereís usually no restriction on ripping tracks from CDs that you already own. No players are going to be rendered obsolete overnight but inevitably there are going to be casualties and buyers really need to do some homework, to ensure the music they want to download is available and compatible with their player of choice, before parting with any money.





R. Maybury 2005 2204




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