More than two years have passed, more deadlines have been missed than can easily be remembered. Public tests have been announced and then concluded with only quiet comments. Dissension, if not a feeling of outright irrelevance, is growing among members and the executive director, the man who guided the group since its founding, recently resigned. This is the condensed history of the Secure Digital Music Initiative (SDMI).
Despite the years of work, and bulging membership rolls bearing such formidable names as Microsoft, IBM, the Recording Industry Association of America, Intel and Sony, SDMI is "not much closer to its goal than they were some time ago," said Ric Dube, an analyst with Webnoize, a digital entertainment research firm.
SDMI was formed in late 1998 by a group of computer, consumer electronics and entertainment companies that planned to produce a standard for secure, copyright-friendly digital music. The effort has been dogged by problems, however, including concerns about whether the standard would impinge on traditional consumer rights. Those questions have since been addressed, but in doing so, the initiative has lost time and seen MP3 and Napster explode into dominant digital media forces.
To make matters worse, Leonardo Chiariglione, SDMI's executive director, resigned last month. His departure is seen by many observers as the result of his frustration with the organization's progress and as a further indication of the consortium's troubles. He played "a fairly essential role" in SDMI, Webnoize's Dube said, and his departure "could be troublesome."
Chiariglione said that the final SDMI specification had missed its deadlines because the organization "has so far been unwilling to work on the basis of project and timeline."
The source close to SDMI points to another issue, however: a structure, dominated by the larger members, which makes it harder for small companies to succeed. "The bad boys get money (MP3.com, Napster) and the big boys get deals (IBM, Microsoft, Real), so companies realize this is simply a forum which does not correspond with business opportunities."
Beyond that, some companies have been put off by the internal dynamics of the consortium. "We are surprised by the extreme politics given the fair and reasonable conduct... exhibited," the source said.
Webnoize's Dube sees some of the same problems. The goals SDMI set were "probably too ambitious," he said, but internal dissension has also played a role. Because of the diverse constituencies SDMI brings together and the diverse interests each group has, dissension has sometimes even arisen within the same company, he said, citing Sony, which has a music company, a consumer electronics group and a computer group, as a company that might have conflicting goals.
Chiariglione now says that SDMI has a clear timeline and will be completed by June. Even if SDMI is completed by then and is incorporated into consumer electronics, compact discs and computers by the third or fourth quarter of this year, Dube is not convinced that it will matter.
Though SDMI's "goal is admirable," the rise of Napster and MP3 has shown consumers, as well as some companies, that "a lot of good things are going on... without a standards body," he said.
The success or failure of SDMI, he said, rests with whether consumers will want products containing the standard. If they don't, vendors might not be likely to adopt it.