CES Quickie: MP3 Proliferation

this quikie written for KoreanZ.com

It was a scant two and a half years ago that the first piece of consumer MP3 hardware was released: a portable player called the MPMan was introduced at the First MP3 Summit in June 1998 by a small Korean company. Half a year later, Diamond Multimedia released their Rio player, validating the concept of consumer hardware for playing Internet audio. While there certainly has been an enormous rise in the number of MP3-enabled devices in the following two years, nothing could have prepared me for what I saw at CES 2001.

MP3 is everywhere. MP3 playback or encoding has been incorporated into every conceivable type of device, and then some. Nearly all of the products on the show floor either played MP3 or had upcoming versions that did.

There were the obvious MP3 players: Intel just released their 128Mb player and there were literally dozens of companies with CompactFlash or MMC-based players. IoMega had their new HipZip MP3 player that uses inexpensive 40Mb Clik disks to store music. Creative showcased their 6Gb hard drive-based Nomad player, while at least three other smaller companies also featured portable hard drive MP3 players (suspiciously, all of them featured 6Gb hard drives), one of which (Echo Mobile Music) even had an audio CD player built in: you could play from the hard drive, the CD, or, sans PC, encode the CD to the hard drive. Several standalone units also offered PC-free ways to enjoy the MP3 experience. Several companies featured portable CD players capable of playing MP3s on a data CD. These developments were fantastic, but not unexpected.

What what was unusual was the proliferation of MP3 into other devices. Harmon/Kardon had a audio/visual receiver with MP3 decoding. Casio had an MP3 watch (although the idea of a watch that needs recharging every day seems odd). Ericsson has had an MP3 attachment to their cell phones for a while in Europe, (over $200!), but Sprint recently announced a relabeled Samsung phone with an integrated MP3 player (it pauses the music when there’s an incoming call). Quite a few hardware vendors had integrated functionality into their DVD players to allow CD with MP3 files on them to be played back, including Samsung, Harmon/Kardon, Arcam, and others. Several vendors were showcasing “sound servers;” once installed in a home, they can pipe music to various parts of the home on demand. All of these servers used the MP3 format to encode CDs for playback. Many stereo CD players and mini stereo units featured MP3 CD playback functionality. A handful of car players also supported MP3 CDs, most notably Clarion. The Diamond Rio car player (Diamond acquired the British company empeg, which makes the box) has a built-in 10-60Gb hard drive array full of MP3 files – you can even wirelessly fill it with songs from your computer while it’s sitting in your driveway! Quite a few Internet music clients were at the show as well, including Kerbango (whose unit will be shipping Any Day Now) and the newly-introduced Audioramp (whose Windows CE-based demo unit had apparently crashed), both of which allow you to tune into AM, FM, or Internet channels in a cute standalone unit.

But the product that really took the cake in terms of absurd MP3 integration was Polaroid’s inclusion of MP3 playback functionality in one of their $250 digital cameras, apparently thinking that there is strong consumer need to listen to music on your camera; “but you can’t play a song at the same time as taking a picture,” the Polaroid representative warned, “just between pictures.”

Separately from specific consumer products, there was a myriad of companies that were selling MP3 encoding and decoding chipsets (including heavy hitters like Micronas and Texas Instrunments), MP3 set top box engineering reference designs, software architectures to enable the sales of MP3 content, MP3 kiosks, and more.

The clear message at CES 2001 is that MP3 and Internet audio are here to stay and are becoming an important part of everyday consumers’ lives. With such widespread industry support, 2001 will clearly see Internet audio made even more easy to use, fashionable, and widely available.

Author: dweekly

I like to start things. :)