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Ultimate Jukebox: The Abc's Of Mp3


BusinessWeek Lifestyle: Home Entertainment

Ultimate Jukebox: The ABC's of MP3

Speedy connections and more choice mean e-music isn't just for college kids anymore

What started as a college addiction has gone mainstream, as millions of people of all ages download music from the Internet. High-speed Internet connections now allow rapid transfers of high-quality music files. Improved technology makes it easier to get access to music and play it. And music lovers have awakened to the Net's potential, thanks to publicity from music-industry lawsuits against Napster, a network that allows people to trade songs, many of them pirated.

By pulling music off the Net, you can create compact disks, program your own Web-based radio stations, and sample huge quantities of music. But before you get started doing any of these things, you need to understand some basics about music on the Internet, from file formats to players to music search engines.

These days, music on the Net is largely synonymous with MP3. "MP" stands for Moving Picture Experts Group, an industry consortium that develops standards for audio and video compression. The third generation of the MP standard, MP3 is a format that compresses bulky audio and video files to the bare minimum for accurate playback.

MP3 files are so small that hundreds can fit on a single compact disk and thousands onto a computer hard drive. That means any desktop or laptop with decent speakers can morph into a massive high-fidelity jukebox. You can download MP3 files with a regular dial-up modem. But to conveniently download sometimes large files, you need a fast digital subscriber line or cable-modem connection of at least 128 kilobytes per second. On college campuses, where most students have access to superspeedy Ethernet connections, it's no surprise that MP3 trading is so common. But corporate firewalls may block music downloads.

There are several other music formats, most of which can be converted into MP3. WAV, an unwieldy standard used in most CD players, is the precursor to MP3. Although it allows higher-quality playback than MP3, WAV files take up huge amounts of room on your hard drive. Then there's Microsoft's WindowsMedia (WMA) format. Microsoft is making a big push to compete with MP3. In a nod to recording-industry concerns over intellectual-property rights, Microsoft has built in fairly strong safeguards that force users to pay for a digital key to unlock copyrighted songs that have been downloaded. Recording companies have returned the favor by signing deals with Microsoft to use its WMA format for distribution of music on the Internet. Other file formats include Real Audio and Liquid Audio. But they rank a distant third and fourth in terms of available music online.

Before you download files, you should pick a way to play them on your PC. You have dozens of choices. The most popular player among the college crowd is WinAmp (table). Owned by America Online, this small program has scads of useful plug-ins that let you put surround sound on your computer or even set up an alarm-clock playlist so you awaken each morning to your favorite tunes.CLICK AND PLAY. Although Windows Media Player works tolerably well with Windows CE handheld devices, there are simply not enough WMA files to satisfy hard-core music fans. Real Audio has a serviceable player, more oriented toward video and streaming music. You can download all of these programs for free or in deluxe versions for about $30. Don't waste your money, though: The deluxe programs have extra features, such as more extensive jukebox capabilities, that most people don't use.

Now that you have the file formats and players straight, you'll want to find some music. That's trickier than it seems. Thousands of Web sites have freely downloadable files. A good place to start is MP3.com. You can search the site by artists or by genre and also look for Web radio stations that play the tunes you like. Real.com offers many similar features but has a less extensive collection of music. A raft of Web-music search engines can scour the Internet to find the songs you want. One, Listen.com, will turn up sample tunes from record-label Web sites or other obscure corners of the Internet. Another, called Scour Exchange, will also search for videos and still images.

To play an MP3 music file after you download it, you generally click on the file's icon on your desktop. Ideally, the file will start playing automatically through the player you have selected. In reality, you may have to open the player before you click on the file.

Much of the music that's freely downloadable through commercial sites is posted by nascent bands in search of a publicity boost. Some music comes as snippets of commercial artists' latest offerings with a come-on to buy the rest. This dearth explains the meteoric rise of Napster, which is at the center of a vast underground where just about any tune is available free of charge. You hook into Napster by registering at Napster.com. Then you can trade MP3 files that Napster users have stored on their hard drives. Other file-exchange systems, such as CuteMX, iMesh, and Scour Exchange, offer similar functions. These files generally come from CDs that users have recorded onto their computers and then converted into MP3. Alas, the vast majority of the music files are pirated and illegal to exchange.

The Recording Industry Association of America and some well-known artists, including rockers Metallica and rapper Dr. Dre, have filed suit in an attempt to shut down Napster, or at least force the music exchange to police users better. In early May, Metallica demanded that Napster block 330,000 users the band said were flagrant music pirates. In response, Napster instituted tracking features in later versions of its software that could help it nab more serious pirates. For their part, both Real Audio and WindowsMedia keep close tabs on downloads taking place through their interfaces.

So far, no one has been prosecuted for pirating MP3 files for personal use. But with the recording industry training its legal firepower on Napster, law-enforcement agencies might start looking at the issue more closely. And right now, it is very easy to track the identities of pirates through their computers' Internet protocol (IP) addresses, which serve as digital fingerprints. But while the Net sleuths are moving in, the beat goes on, turning the Web into the world's largest jukebox.By Alex SalkeverReturn to top


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