It's all very well digitizing your media collection, but how are you to navigate the information? DIGIT looks at how we might be managing our metadata in the future.

Your music collection is finally digital. You've ripped your 200 favourite CDs to MP3 files and you can create play lists, or instantly call up favourites from your personal database of 2,000 songs. Setting out for the weekend you copy 100 songs onto a CD-R, pop it into your car's new MP3 CD player. Then you realize: your car player isn't half as intelligent as your PC. You have to either remember 100 track numbers or hit Next or Back to navigate your music.

The problem is becoming increasingly likely as more people are burning their own multimedia CDs and more consumer electronics devices are gaining the ability to read such data. Many CD players can understand MP3 files in addition to audio CDs, and some DVD players can run JPEG slideshows as well as movies. Televisions are changing, with the most modern models able to show movies or images stored on memory cards.

While this is great for the convergence between the PC and your living room, there's a problem. Most of these devices don't know much about the content of your files beyond their filenames and that can make navigating them enough of a hassle to consider going back to analog.

There are software products that can organize collections of songs, photos, or movies on hard drives, and most of these applications store descriptional data, or metadata. This data is stored in a format that is proprietary to the manufacturer or perhaps shared among other applications, but these are not understood outside of the world of computing.

Spec saver

To the rescue come two cross-industry metadata specifications, HighMAT and MPV (Music Photo Video). Both attempt to define standard ways or storing metadata so that a number of applications and hardware devices have access to it. The result should make it easier to find files when using platforms other than a PC.

It's been about a year since both were proposed but you'll be forgiven for not recognizing either. HighMAT is on the market although is currently only supported in a handful of devices and applications while MPV is at an earlier stage. However, the backers of both systems, which include some of the biggest names in computing and consumer electronics, promise things are about to change.

HighMAT, developed by Microsoft and Panasonic, was launched first on October 18, 2002. At that time support was announced for five file formats, Windows Media Audio, MP3, JPEG, Windows Media Video, and MPEG4, as well as CD. DVD has also been added.

Currently around 15 Panasonic-branded products with HighMAT compatibility are available around the world and Microsoft has added support to Windows Media player 9 and Windows Media Maker, and has a Windows XP wizard for the same task. Third party products with HighMAT support are difficult to find but the software maker says it is happy with HighMAT's first year.

"We are both excited about the progress HighMAT has made and the continued progress," said Michael Aldridge, group product manager at the Windows Digital Media division at Microsoft.

He noted a number of companies have pledged to support the system since its launch including, on the hardware side, Apex Digital, Creative Technologies, and JVC. Software vendors including Ahead Software, which makes Nero Burning Ro; Aplix, which makes WinCDR; Roxio, and Sonic Solutions have all pledged support. Japan's BHA released the first third-party application with HighMAT support - B's Recorder Gold 7 - in September 2003.

Better metadata

Looking ahead, Aldridge said he sees the number of software products with support expanding, as new products are released during this year.

"Third-party support is starting to emerge and I expect more momentum towards CES," he said, referring to the Consumer Electronics Show held in Las Vegas in the second week of January. "Based on what I am seeing, you can expect to see more shipping hardware at CES."

MPV is the second system and was developed by the Optical Storage Technology Association (OSTA). It is somewhat of a competitor to HighMAT, although its a little wider in scope. First announced in November 2002, MPV has unlimited file format support. It can work on optical discs and memory cards, or across home networks, and is available to hardware and software makers royalty-free from the OSTA.

There are a number of big name supporters, including Kodak, HP, LG, Olympus, Koninklijke Philips, Samsung, and Sony, but prototype hardware is only just being unveiled.

At OSTA's Optical Storage Symposium conference in October 2003, Samsung showed a prototype MPV player for music and photos, due to be commercially available in the first quarter of 2004. Olympus demonstrated a digital still camera with MPV support, due in 2004, said Pieter Van Zee, a senior architect for HP's imaging and printing group, who represented the company at the event.

Several other software vendors are signed up to support MPV, including some of the same companies that are backing HighMAT, although their products are yet to appear. One reason is that the part of MPV relating to music is not complete.

The original specification for MPV included support for basic metadata, such as the article, title, and description, but the Music Profile 1.0 adds support for things like the music genre, lyrics and CD cover art. "We think there is a strong need for MPV," Van Zee said.

Sitting on the fence

While a number of big-name companies have declared support for one or the other system, many more have yet to do so. Toshiba is one of several companies not allied with either system yet, and says it isn't rushing to make a decision.

"In most cases, when users store music or image data with their computers, they will listen or watch with their computers and not with CD or DVD players," said Midori Suzuki, a spokeswoman for Toshiba. "Of course, this might change over time. When we find more need for such systems, we will consider whether to employ either system or develop our own system."

While the number of supporting companies will be an important factor in the eventual success or failure of both systems, the ultimate decision may lie in the hands of consumers who will create the content and decide which to adopt. For that selection process to begin more products are needed and, if 2004 really does see the systems making their way into more products, users will soon be in a much better position to judge.