Tuesday, August 11, 2009

CMX: See Cocktail, Failure

According to this article in The Guardian,
Sony, Warner, Universal and EMI are reportedly preparing a new digital album format that will include songs, lyrics, videos, liner notes and artwork.

I am skeptical of the chances for success here. The labels are not supposed to work together directly, because of collusion problems (though that's never stopped them). The labels have historically not done well developing their own in-house technologies.

As I said previously, there's nothing here that cannot already be accomplished with existing technology, and one can expect the new files containing video, lyrics, and other assets to cost more.

The label's plan raises a number of questions for me, though:
  • What audio format? It needs to be MP3. I'm assuming CMX is going to be a "wrapper" format that allows a bunch of assets to be collected together. This would theoretically allow any audio format to be contained.
  • Is there DRM? Given who's involved in the creation of this asset, DRM seems likely.
  • Is there a license fee? If the labels want wide adoption, the format needs to be free and unlicensed.
  • Can anyone create these files? If I can't make my own on my computer for the CDs I've ripped, I'm not interested. A key for wide success is the ability for all labels (and users) to create something like this for their back catalog, not just a handful of new releases.
  • What players (portable and otherwise) support these files? This is the big one. If nobody has display capability for these files, it's all but dead already. As the article notes, it's pretty clear Apple won't support them - and Apple represents 80% or so of the MP3 player market. Unless the labels have been working with the top MP3 player manufacturers for a year and/or unless the format is trivial to implement (unlikely), there won't be portables that support this format until next year.
  • Is the file "the album" or is the file something referenced by the tracks on the album? For the last 10+ years, people have been breaking the album up and focusing on track-based experiences. I don't see massive demand for a return to a monolithic album unit. If I were working on this, I'd make CMX or Cocktail an additional file type rather than making it "the thing that was played".
I'm intrigued to see what CMX and Cocktail end up being. I still believe a simple format based on open standards is the right tech solution.

The right content solution is limited interactivity with high-quality content - correct lyrics, detailed liner notes, and high resolution art. Done properly, an open approach would easily allow inclusion of video and applications/EXEs. Focus on the content and usability, not animations, whizzy menus, etc. In other words, do exactly the opposite of DVD menus!

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