This story was first written for The Independent to appear in its 13 April 2001 edition. $2.50 for every copy of iTunes? One wonders if Apple will ever remove the facility to encode in MP3 from iTunes….

BY CHARLES ARTHUR

Technology Editor

Are you still listening to MP3s? Microsoft wishes you wouldn’t; and so does the record industry – the first because it would rather push its own, proprietary music-digitising format, and the latter because MP3s have, it claims, undermined the business through web sites such as Napster.

Although millions of Internet users have shown themselves to be hooked on the MP3 format, which can turn music tracks into small files that can be swapped and transmitted over the Net, Microsoft said that its next consumer operating system, Windows XP, due out in autumn, will “not include” the ability to produce high-quality MP3s.

That will severely restrict the listening quality of any music turned into an MP3 with that program. Instead, anyone trying to digitise music will be encouraged – not particularly subtly – to use Microsoft’s own “Windows Media Audio” (WMA) format.

Meanwhile RealNetworks [CORR RealNetworks] of Seattle, which was set up by a former Microsoft employee, is also pushing its proprietary RealPlayer format for digitising music.

The intent: to ease computer users to a position where they cannot send each other copies of music without paying for them. Both the Microsoft WMA and RealPlayer formats have “digital rights management” software, with copyright protection built in that will automatically police the use and sharing of music between computers. Only people who can show they have permission to listen to a WMA or RealPlayer file could listen to it on their computer – unlike MP3s, which can be swapped freely.

The WMA format does have the advantage that songs take up less room on disks. But with new technologies providing exponential increases in storage in all formats, that is unlikely to be a burning issue for consumers.

The intent of the two companies to have their own formats used by consumers belies the obvious popularity of MP3s, which are produced under an open standard: anyone can write a software program that will decode them, although software to create MP3s calls for a licence fee payable to the Fraunhofer Institute, which developed the format. That costs $2.50 for every copy of the software produced. For Microsoft, which hopes to sell millions of copies of XP, that could add up.

“We think at the end of the day, consumers don’t really care what format they [record] in,” said Dave Fester, a manager at Microsoft’s Digital Media Division. He said that despite the new restrictions, XP will do “a great job of making sure our player will play back MP3s.” But for new content that users might want to create, he says there “are clear advantages” to not using MP3.

Clear for Microsoft, and also for the record industry, which has been driven to distraction by the success of MP3s, particularly in the form of the Napster file-swapping service, which has allowed tens of millions of people to download literally billions of tracks without paying for them.

That is where consumers and the record industry diverge. “The industry doesn’t want [MP3] pushed, and Microsoft and RealNetworks don’t want it pushed. The consumer is going to eat what he’s given,” said David Farber, former chief technologist at the US’s Federal Communications Commission, who generally opposes the company.

He thinks that XP will be a major weapon in that. “When Microsoft decides to put something in their operating-system support, it becomes the standard,” says Mr. Farber, who against the company during the Microsoft antitrust trial. “The average consumer will use what comes on the disc when he buys the machine. They’re very effective in that way.”

But even those who wish MP3s would disappear allow that that might never happen. “It’s a little like the VHS tape,” said Steve Banfield, general manager at RealNetworks. “DVD is great, but VHS is ubiquitous and it isn’t going away anytime soon.”

–story ends–