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Microsoft and Panasonic pioneer new disc standard

Panasonic and Microsoft have jointly developed a new way to store, access and retrieve digital multimedia stored on recordable optical discs.

The technology, called HighMAT (high performance media access technology), spells out a common way to store data such as digital music, photos and video and also specifies the way in which devices can access this media.

At the base of the system is a set directory structure under which images, audio and video are stored. In addition, a metadata file is also stored on the disc providing information about the files and what they contain. Access to media is fast because HighMAT-compatible devices will be able to determine disc contents by accessing the single file rather than reading the disc's directory structure and having to fetch in turn information about each file stored on the disc.

"Until now CDs have had around 20 songs on them so if you want to access track 7, you just press the 7 button," Susumu Furukawa, corporate vice-president for advanced strategy and policy at Microsoft, said. With consumers now using CDs to hold a diverse range of data and sometimes hundreds of files, finding particular files is not so easy, he added.

By utilising the new system, consumers should see faster start-up times for CDs and also a more consistent interface to content stored on optical discs across a wide range of access devices, such as DVD players, car audio systems and personal computers.

Users should also be able to manipulate and sort content on discs more easily because the HighMAT data file contains additional information about the content, such as artist name or genre in the case of music files. This means custom playlists can be quickly created, said Furukawa. The metadata for audio tracks is encoded at the time of ripping by using technology already built into Windows, whereby the Media Player contacts an Internet database and fetches information about the CD and tracks.

HighMAT is intended to be used with CD-R and CD-RW systems for storing consumer-created content and so Microsoft said it will build support for the system into the upcoming Windows Media Player 9 software and Windows Media Maker 2 software.

For third party software developers, a software developer kit (SDK) will be made available so support for HighMAT can be built into CD burner packages, said Alex Limberis, director of business development at Microsoft's digital media division. The SDK is expected in January 2003, he said.

The system has support for five file types: Windows Media Audio, MP3, JPEG, Windows Media Video and MPEG4.

"If this system is to become widely used, we have to limit the formats," said Limberis. "The reason is, if you burn a HighMAT disc, you can be assured that you will be able to play it on any HighMAT standard hardware."

Licensing to other hardware makers has yet to begin and the companies said they have still to decide on licensing fees.

"The business model is to charge consumer electronics device makers a fee," said Limberis. "However for producing discs and for companies like FujiFilm that are producing discs from consumer-created content, there will be no fees. This is more about interoperability between the PC and consumer electronics devices than about generating huge licensing fees."

First generation versions of HighMAT do not include data regarding copyright or rights management but the inclusion of such data is being studied for future versions, said Limberis.

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