Thomson Pushes Further into MP3 Territory

The MP3 digital music format continues to gain momentum. Only two weeks ago, Thomson S.A., the international electronics conglomerate (parent of RCA and ProScan), announced a 20% investment in MusicMatch, Inc., the San Diego, California-based maker of management software for the upstart format. Last week Thomson took a further radical stance by announcing RCA's own MP3 player, the Lyra, to a gathering of more than 400 dealers at the Mandalay Bay Resort in Las Vegas.

The move into MP3 is part of the company's larger strategy of embracing and promoting personalized entertainment. Products like Enhanced TV and hard-disk video recorders such as those from Replay and TiVo are also part of this trend. Apart from introducing the first VHS video tape recorder in the US (an RCA-branded machine made by Matsushita), RCA has never been known as a risk-taker or trendsetter in the marketplace. In that context, the Lyra is a bold maneuver.

Time shifting, the freedom that consumers gained from the VCR, has expanded into every aspect of home entertainment---especially Internet audio, where music fans can download the tunes of their choice whenever they wish. No longer are they bound by the whims of radio programmers, nor do they have to buy an entire album simply to have one favorite song. Eventually everything will be available on a piece-by-piece basis over the Internet for compiling in any order music fans might like.

Toward that end, MusicMatch has just announced the Beta release of its Jukebox 4.0 software. Jukebox lets users "record, sort, and play digital music tracks from their personal CD collections" or from Internet downloads, and provides line-in recording capabilities for sources such as microphone, tape, or vinyl records. The software also offers advanced features such as fading, clipping control, and as many as 12 channels of recording, according to a May 3 press release. One might soon be able to compile and enjoy the world's vast library of music without ever leaving the computer.

Music and movies, once communal experiences, are becoming increasingly isolationist affairs. Sharing the files, however, is a group activity of the highest order---albeit clandestine, like the sharing of suppressed literature in the old Soviet Union, which passed hand-to-hand as meticulously copied samizdat.

The legality of digital music files is as questionable here as banned books were in the USSR. For that reason, MusicMatch has teamed up to make copyright-secure MP3 players with InterTrust Technologies Corporation, a Silicon Valley maker of the MetaTrust Utility software, which purportedly guarantees security to everyone involved in the digital download chain: artists, websites, financial institutions, Internet service providers, hardware manufacturers, and consumers. The company's self-description: "InterTrust has invented, and is shipping, products and services that enable the end-to-end digital rights management solutions delivered by MetaTrust Utility core partners . . ." Prose like that would have made any old Kremlin bureaucrat happy.