Hang On to Your CD Player for Now

DataPlay disks aim to replace audio CDs, but they face daunting copy-protection hurdles

When the compact disk burst onto the consumer-electronics scene in the mid-1980s, it drove vinyl records and prerecorded cassette tapes off the market. A format like that normally takes a decade or more to become dominant, but the perceived superiority of the CD and the fact that the new equipment quickly became affordable resulted in rapid acceptance. Technologically, the audio CD has become a bit of a fossil itself, but don't toss your Discman just yet. My guess is that the CD will be with us for quite a while.

That's not for want of challengers. There are audio DVDs, which can hold many hours of music. And there are two entries from Sony (SNE ), Super Audio CD and MiniDisc, which the company has pushed to little effect--except in Japan--for a decade.

I have just spent some time playing with the newest contender to the CD throne, DataPlay, from a company of the same name. DataPlay is potentially an attractive product. Each double-sided disk, which comes in a plastic cartridge not a lot bigger than a postage stamp, holds 500 megabytes. That's about 20% less capacity than an audio CD, but modern compression technology lets it store five hours of CD-quality music on a disk. Currently, the only way to listen to DataPlay disks is with a dedicated player, such as the $370 unit co-branded by Evolution Technologies and MTV Networks. I found the controls on both the player and DataPlay's FuturePlay Windows software awkward, but such first-generation efforts will undoubtedly improve.

The most interesting thing about DataPlay is that it is the first medium that can be produced as cheaply as a conventional CD and also written to repeatedly, like a CD-RW. This raises some interesting possibilities. A record company could sell a prerecorded DataPlay disk containing the 74 minutes or less of a CD and leave the rest blank for buyers to add their own music. The publisher could add a game or a video--or fill the space with more songs that the buyer can access for an additional charge. The disk even lets you hear a preview of each song before you decide whether to buy it.

So what's not to like? Copy protection. The music industry has made it clear that it will never again allow any digital medium that, like the standard audio CD, can be copied freely. To win the support of record companies, DataPlay had to adopt a rights-management scheme that restricts how players and media can be used.

You can play a DataPlay disk on your computer from a player attached by a USB cable, but you cannot copy the music to your hard drive. If you had a DataPlay drive built into your computer--something that will happen if the format succeeds--you would not be able to download music to a portable player unless it used the same rights-management plan. Once you save any music, however obtained, to a DataPlay disk, you cannot copy it back to a computer. So while DataPlay disks--about $10 initially for blank media--can actually be used to store Windows programs or data files, copy protection drastically reduces their utility for storing music.

Consumer acceptance of copy protection is just one of the hurdles DataPlay faces in its race to succeed the audio CD. The industry politics of recording formats is extremely complex, and it has as much to do with who gets royalties from what media as it does with technical merit. DataPlay has deals with all the major record companies except Warner Music and Sony, and it promises releases from such artists as *NSYNC and Britney Spears to Sarah McLachlan and R. Kelly. But until players begin shipping in quantity, it will be hard to tell how extensive the DataPlay catalog will be. While Warner will probably come aboard, Sony, which favors its own media, looks like a holdout that will create a gaping hole in the DataPlay lineup.

It's going to take a lot of work for the industry to develop a format and copy-protection scheme that all the consumer-electronics makers can agree on and that both record companies and consumers will accept. The audio CD could be replaced by something offering more capacity and better sound quality, but I don't think it will happen soon.


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