Compatibility Woes Dog Digital Music

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PC World
Saturday, December 17, 2005; 12:10 AM

All the advances in digital music players, accessories, and services are bound to be music to the ears of any music lover. But tech journalist Dawn Chmielewski steps in to inject a sour note. It's a matter of compatibility. And it boils down to this: Not all hardware and music services play well together. Particularly when it comes to songs you buy over the Net.

The most popular player around--Apple Computer's IPod --only works with Apple's own music service. That means you can't use it to listen to any of those songs you bought from, say, Napster or Yahoo. And you can't use anything but an IPod to listen to songs you buy from Apple's ITunes Music Store.

Naturally, Apple doesn't see this as a problem. But for consumers, that's a hassle in the making. Say you just bought a new Sonos Digital Music System or a Roku SoundBridge so you can listen to your music throughout your house. Both manufacturers say their devices are compatible with ITunes. But in reality, you can't play any of the songs you bought through Apple's online store on your new digital stereo. The only songs you'll be able to listen to are from the CDs you've imported, or "ripped," onto your computer's hard drive. If you've purchased hundreds of songs through ITunes, that's a major disappointment.

Which brings us to another looming compatibility problem: copy-protected CDs. The record labels behind some of music's best-known acts have begun to release CDs whose songs can't be ripped into unprotected MP3 music files that will play in any portable device. The only way to get the songs off the CD and onto your computer is in the form of a locked Windows Media file. Which, needless to say, can't be stored in your ITunes music library or played on your IPod.

It's simply a mess. And it's happened before: When 45 rpm records came out back in the fifties, they initially played only on special phonographs. Same thing with 33 1/3s. It may have been a good way to sell hardware, but it left consumers angry and confused. But it didn't take long before the music industry got wise to the idea that it was better to have players that could handle both formats--and the old 78s, too. Within a few years, single-speed turntables were history, and every player could play every disc. Then stereo came in and the old players wouldn't work with the new records--but that problem got fixed pretty fast, too.

Let's hope the digital compatibility clash ends soon.


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