SDMI Releases Specifications for Portable Audio

After months of wrangling, the Secure Digital Music Initiative (SDMI) has announced its first set of standards for portable digital music devices. Manufacturers can now incorporate these standards into the designs of new products. Many industry observers believe that portables will be the next big wave in consumer audio, expected to hit the market by the winter holiday season.

In a July 13 announcement, the SDMI, a cross-industry consortium, emphasized that the standards are "voluntary." New SDMI-compliant devices will play all types of digital music, including "legacy" MP3 files. As many as 500,000 MP3 audio files may be available as free downloads on the Internet, the SDMI believes.

In early July, the group decided not to pursue the MP3 issue, choosing instead to concentrate on controlling the distribution of higher-quality digital formats to come. The next generation of downloadable audio will be encrypted with identifying "flags" and code that will enable users to copy once, copy an unlimited number of times, copy only for a limited period, or copy not at all—as the copyright owners deem appropriate.

The new specifications, formulated in late June, will be introduced in two phases. In Phase I, which begins immediately, SDMI-compliant devices may accept all digital music formats, encrypted or not. Phase II will begin after screening technology is developed to filter out pirated music. No date has been established for the second phase. For now, the music is still free. Music fans can continue to transfer music from their CD collections and from online sources without fear of running afoul of the law.

The process of establishing the first standard was an exhausting effort for all involved. Leonardo Chiariglione, SDMI's executive director, said, "The portable device specification required tremendous collaboration by all parties. This specification is the strongest example yet that the music and technology industries can work together to benefit consumers." The new specifications—which apply to software developers, Internet content providers, consumer electronics manufacturers, recording studios, and music publishers—are expected to provide the first real framework for the dawning age of worldwide digital music distribution.