Jesse Berst: Stop the audio-standards madness!

Ever jumped into a mosh pit? You know, the space in front of the stage where alt-rock fans smash into each other as a band blares.

I've never done it. For one thing, I might lose a cuff link. Or I might get hurt. Like you might get hurt if you get sucked in by today's slam-dancing audio vendors. To understand this violent dance-a-thon, you need to know the difference between streaming and downloading -- the two most popular methods of distributing audio over the Net: Streaming, made famous by RealNetworks, connects you to a server and plays music as it momentarily travels across the Internet. Sound quality is fair. Downloading, made famous by MP3, delivers music from elsewhere and stores it on your computer. Because the audio is saved on your PC, you can play it again and again. Sound quality is often as good as CDs. This column's about downloading. In the not-too-distant future, CDs will be obsolete. We'll just download and store music onto various devices. Greedy and venal, vendors want to upend MP3 and substitute a standard of their own. So they can charge a fee to record companies. As a result, we've witnessed a parade of duelling standards:

  • IBM partners with RealNetworks to push its Electronic Music Management System.
  • Microsoft launches an MP3 alternative called MS Audio 4.0.
  • AT&T unveils its latest a2b music player.
Confused yet? It gets worse. Scads of other companies are developing competing software. If you thought VHS vs. Beta was intense, this tune tussle is like VHS vs. Beta vs. six other formats. So, what format should you support? MP3. Because it empowers consumers, instead of warring companies. True, MP3 doesn't have copyright protection. And that's bad, because musicians deserve to be paid. But several companies have already built copyright add-ons for MP3. As I said, this musical melee is like a mosh pit. And I advise you to leave the club before anyone gets hurt. Or loses a cuff link. Who will win the online music distribution war? Talk to the Mailroom.

Take me to the MP3 Special