Cirrus deal gives MS Audio needed boost

Microsoft hasn't had much luck in pitching its audio format against MP3. But that might be changing.

Ask the online music industry what chance Microsoft's MS Audio has to displace MP3 and the answer is no longer an unequivocal "none".

Introduced to a somewhat sceptical audience in the spring, Microsoft's bid to usurp the ubiquitous MP3 got a definite thumbs-down from the market last year, despite its superior sound/compression. One year on, the MP3 brigade reckon Microsoft's alternative may have a place... sometime.

Crunch.co.uk, one of the few UK sites selling MP3 tracks from licensed artists, said that although it has no immediate plans to offer content in MS Audio, it would not rule out any format in the future. "MP3 is the best format at this point as it is the most open and has the widest installed base," said Dominic Arkwright, technical manager for the company. But times are changing and with Tuesday's Cirrus Logic announcement Arkwright reckons Microsoft's moves to garner processor support for MS Audio in portable players "could lead to some amount of domination".

As if wounded by the admission, Arkwright immediately added: "But it is hard to see how it could totally win over MP3."

Ernesto Schmitt, CEO of MP3 music mavericks Peoplesound, believes that MP3 has the edge in terms of quality. But Schmitt concedes the real advantage MP3 has over MS Audio is that "MP3 is so ubiquitous. Unless you control all of the content or all of the hardware then it's going to be hard to turn this juggernaut around."

Currently there is very little content available in Microsoft's format, although David Bowie recently showed support for it by offering his album "hours..." for download in either MS Audio or RealAudio. Curiously an MP3 version was not released.

MS Audio's late entry into the market has also given it a handicap in the battle against MP3. Says Schmitt: "Everyone is launching MP3 players, not MS Audio players." Sony's recently-announced Memory Stick Walkman will come with software to convert MP3 files to its proprietary playback format, but no plans to do the same for MS Audio have been announced.

In the end, both Crunch and Peoplesound agree the question of the music format is academic. "Most people don't care about the format, they just want to get their hands on the music," said Arkwright.

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