LONDON Any consumer OEMs that expect next week's Secure Digital Music Initiative (SDMI) gathering here to give them a one-size-fits-all framework for portable, downloadable Internet music players had best prepare themselves for a messier reality.
Initial work at SDMI may produce confusion, at least in the short term, as a gaggle of potentially incompatible players using different codec, compression and encryption technologies all claim to be "SDMI-compliant." That may be less than welcome news for a burgeoning market based on often-pirated MP3 Internet audio, but it opens a door for a world of powerful programmable processors and DSPs.
SDMI aims to establish rules and requirements that Internet music players must meet, but leaves it to the OEM to make the hard decisions on audio codecs, encryption systems and watermarking, according to several industry sources who have actively participated in all of the SDMI meetings since the forum's inception earlier this year.
Further, informed sources predicted that among the Internet audio players expected to be out on the market this Christmas, a so-called SDMI-compliant player may not necessarily be compatible with any other SDMI-compliant model, unless system vendors and content owners form business alliances to make them so. SDMI is working on a self-imposed deadline to release a fast-track "framework" specification on June 30.
Expecting SDMI to come up with a solution for compatible system specifications "is a common misconception," warned an executive at a technology company, also an SDMI member, who asked for anonymity. "The SDMI is not about compatibility, it's about creating a platform for content owners to provide copyrighted music through a secure system and a secure channel."
Many technology companies go to SDMI meetings not necessarily to influence its choices, but to make sure their technologies aren't left out in the cold. "We want to make sure the standard remains open," said Rachel Walkden, director of audio initiatives at Lucent Technologies Inc.
Lucent is aggressively promoting its proprietary audio codec, called EPAC, which the company claims has "CD-transparent" music quality. Lucent has ambitions to broadly license the EPAC codec and EPAC-based players to consumers and OEMs, though Walkden said the company understands that the format ultimately needs to be sold to major music labels through private negotiations, independent of SDMI.
Several such negotiations, technology evaluations and selections relevant to secure online music are said to be actively proceeding between major labels and technology companies all outside of SDMI. A case in point is digital watermarking. Working closely with the five major record labels on encryption and watermarking choices for the DVD-Audio standard, an entity known as the 4Cs namely, IBM, Intel, Matsushita and Toshiba began its second round of testing on watermarking technologies this past Monday (April 26).
Although the goal of the 4Cs is to identify the appropriate digital security measure for DVD-Audio, sources said the group's decisions, backed by the five major record labels, are likely to be embraced by SDMI. "I believe that it's a reasonable approach for the SDMI to follow the DVD-Audio path," said Paul Goldberg, vice president of audio products at Zoran Corp. (Santa Clara, Calif.). "It certainly wouldn't be wise to ignore [their work]." However, he cautiously added, "Would it define the SDMI spec? I don't know."
Whether to include watermarking as part of the initial, fast-track SDMI spec is a hotly debated issue, according to many industry sources. Yet those familiar with the 4Cs' ongoing watermarking tests noted that the partners' decision is likely within 45 to 60 days.
"It would be naive to think that record companies don't know much about technologies or they are not savvy enough to settle on the watermarking issue," one source said. "They've tested a number of security solutions in the past several years, and watermarking once mastered in the original recording is one critical tool for copyright owners to protect themselves, rather than relying on others for protection."
Given the multiplicity of SDMI systems that are likely to emerge, at least out of the initial spec, the probable winners in the Internet music-player market look to be DSP companies. A programmable DSP could offer an ideal platform for OEMs to add whatever modifications SDMI may come up with later, said Gary Johnson, worldwide manager of DSPs for Texas Instruments Inc. (Dallas).
TI is set to unveil a new DSP, the TMS320C54X, for consumer OEMs looking for a silicon solution for portable Internet music players. The company's TMS320C5410 has already been designed into Lucent's EPAC player and NTT's TwinVQ model. But TI is spinning another version, scheduled for volume production in the fourth quarter, by adding more on-chip memory and lowering power dissipation, according to Johnson.
The current TI 5410 DSP features 100 DSP Mips of processing power at 100-mW power dissipation. The firmware for MP3 and AAC is scheduled to be added to TI's library by June, Johnson said.
Today, the only ASIC solution available for downloadable Internet music players is the one developed by Micronas Intermetall (Freiburg, Germany). That company's chip set is designed for MP3 players only.
Zoran's Goldberg said that his company, too, is working on a streamlined audio DSP based on the core of the ZR38650, originally designed for digital audio receivers. Scheduled to be launched this summer, it will boast lower power consumption than the initial part, he said.
Another likely winner for the nascent portable-player market is solid-state storage media. Dan Auclair, senior vice president of business development at flash-card maker SanDisk (Sunnyvale, Calif.), said, "For us, this is a major opportunity. We're extremely motivated." The company is promoting both its CompactFlash and MultiMedia Card technologies for this market.
SanDisk announced this week that Maycom Co., a Korean consumer-electronics manufacturer, is using its MultiMedia Card in a new MP3 player, while LG Electronics and Pontis are also designing the same form-factor flash card into their MP3 players. Meanwhile, Casio earlier this month revealed that its new portable Internet audio player, based on Windows CE and designed for Microsoft Corp.'s MS Audio, will use SanDisk's CompactFlash card.
SanDisk's Auclair, also an SDMI member, is currently acting as editor for an ad-hoc group within SDMI to define interface specifications between a so-called Licensed SDMI-Compliant Module (LCM) and portable devices. In SDMI jargon, LCM is defined as a protected environment where LCM systems such as PCs, set-tops or Internet appliances receive content, rules for content management and protection from a variety of input sources such as CDs, DVDs and secure Internet music.
Among many technology and business issues argued within SDMI, the interface is one of the least contentious, according to Auclair. The proposed spec is likely to okay any interface, including USB, parallel port and removable media like CompactFlash.
On the other hand, the most critical unresolved SDMI spec involves how to define a protected environment for LCM and portable devices in the short haul. Over time, everyone agrees that the LCM within a PC, for example, should be able to establish a secure environment by downloading secure music to a portable device through a secure channel, employing such measures as authentication, encryption and watermarking.
But this scenario is not feasible in the short run because, as many in the industry would acknowledge, the genie is already out of the bottle. The Web is already rife with unprotected music files, such as those encoded in MP3, which contains no security measures. And they are not going away.
If a consumer OEM seriously wants to enter the Internet music-player market this Christmas, "their portable devices need to be competitive" with the increasingly popular MP3 players, Auclair said.
Does that mean SDMI-compliant portable devices should be allowed to play back unprotected MP3 files? No SDMI member is sure of the answer, though the group is discussing a transitional, or "sunset," period as a compromise the record labels may have to live with.
Those in a position to protect their copyrighted content are demanding a way to find out whether certain music files on the Web, for example, contain copyrighted materials, and whether it is valid to download them and make no copy, copy them once or make many copies.
In the view of many record companies, the only way to determine this is to embed copy-control functions along with forensic tools into all copyrighted music via some form of watermarking. Some consumer OEMs and chip companies argue that authentication and encryption could be easily handled on a DSP in a cost-effective portable device. But not watermarking. "Watermarking is too big a processing load [for a DSP], and not easy to do," TI's Johnson said.
The problem is that a device needs to not only detect the watermark and read it, but also must reinsert the watermark so that what was once defined as "copy once" can be changed into "no copy" after it's been copied, explained Zoran's Goldberg.
At this juncture, companies like Lucent are not assuming anything about the upcoming SDMI spec. "We are being very sensitive to the recording industry's needs," Walkden said. Lucent's EPAC proposal will include an encryption system developed by an unnamed third party, as well as a watermarking system developed by Cognicity. Watermark detection, Walkden said, is most likely to be handled by a PC's host processor.
Scott Moskowitz, chief executive officer at watermark-technology company Bluspike, said, "We have a flexible watermarking system which can encode a watermark inaudibly into CD audio and retrieve it after MP3 compression at 128 kbits/s." He said the encoded data is secured against tampering by using industry-standard cryptography.
Further, the data payload can be distributed between multiple watermarks with differential access, with a total payload capacity of up to 30 bits/second, he said. "The system works at multiple sample rates and bit depths," Moskowitz said. "Decoding can be processed at 30 to 50 times real-time to offer superior, low-cost performance."
Ultimately, consumer OEMs will have to do a tap dance to design in time for Christmas sales an SDMI-compliant system flexible enough to mature with the market.
"It's going to be a scramble for OEMs to design a system that meets all the SDMI requirements in such a short time frame," said Fred Falk, chief executive at e.Digital Corp. (San Diego), a system-design house that is developing a reference design for the EPAC player for Lucent and its OEMs. The design leverages e.Digital's patented MicroOS file-management system, which the company claims promises a faster turnaround of a system that needs last-minute changes.