July 20, 2000
Hey, Walkman: Time to Face the Music on a Chip
New MP3 Devices Are Challenging Tape and CD Players
By MICHEL MARRIOTT
ess than two years ago, the first
handheld MP3 player was introduced, at a time when downloadable digital music was still a mystery to
just about anyone who wasn't a college
student or a basement-bound techie.
Tony Cenicola for The New York Times
by S3's Rio Division
Storage: 32 MB built in (up to an hour), expandable to 340 MB.
Plays: MP3 and Windows Media Audio. Upgradable to include AAC and Audible.
Slide Show (9 photos)
That first player, the Rio 300 PMP,
has now spawned its third generation,
the Rio 600, as sleek and curvy as its
predecessor was boxy and bland. And it
is only one of a new wave of consumer-friendly digital players, aimed not at
the early adopters, the tech-hungry minority who will buy anything as long as
it is shiny and showy and it beeps, but at
the mass market, the rest of the gadget
buyers, the ones who do not like a
complicated instruction booklet.
The goal is nothing less than overtaking the cassette player and the CD
player as the standard for listening to
music on the go.
"The critical fact in the technology
market right now is tailoring the product to consumer interests, rather than
acting as if consumers' lifestyles and
listening habits can be made to adapt to
a singular device," said Mike Reed,
vice president of marketing for S3's Rio
division. The new mantra among consumer electronics executives and designers is ease of use, ease of use, ease
Designers at the newly founded Nike
Techlab, a sort of Skunk Works for Nike
Inc., in Beaverton, Ore., called the approach "simplified logic."
And audio-player designers say they
are reworking software as well as trying to improve the hardware, particularly the quality of the sound (still, on
average, too tinny) and its volume (in
most cases not yet approaching that of
a common CD player) and storage (a
paltry hour of music using the MP3
format and about twice that using the
newer Windows Media Audio format).
But for a few exceptions, they have a
way to go.
For now, the players still depend
almost exclusively on personal computers as a way to download digital music,
which makes the audience smaller than
that for tapes or CD's. But 45 million
American households have personal
computers, according to Forrester Research, so there are a lot of potential
Legal issues about copyright still
plague the downloading of music from
the Web. But the industry is coming to
terms with the idea that downloadable music will increasingly be a fact of life for
consumers, and it is working with computer
and electronics companies to develop better
ways to offer music online that also protects
EMI Recorded Music announced earlier
this month that it is releasing some of its
songs using Liquid Audio, a digital format
seen by many as being one of the more
secure in the industry.
And the makers of
digital players are developing not only new
hardware, but also new forms of memory
and new systems that do not depend on
personal computers for getting the music.
Forward Concepts, a research company
in Tempe, Ariz., forecasted that the market
for portable digital players will swell to 15
million in 2003 from a projected 3 million
users this year. And young people view
downloadable music as just another way to
listen to what they want to hear. In a survey
this spring by eBrain Market Research, a
service of the Consumer Electronics Association, 57 percent of consumers 15 to 21 years
old said they had played MP3 music files.
Among those who had listened to MP3 music, most, according to the survey, found its
sound comparable to that of a typical stereo.
So far, the appeal of personal digital players has rested on several factors: small size
(the Sony VAIO Music Clip is slightly larger
than a hefty fountain pen); completely skip-proof music playback; and the user's freedom to put any combination of songs on
them. All of that can be done without
cassette tape, compact discs, minidiscs or
audio DVD's whirling away inside of them.
The new players, due this summer and
early next year, share those features and
add new ones.
Prices range from about $170
to $300. And some are so simple to use that
they would not require extensive thumbing
through a voluminous operating manual to
learn how to turn the thing on. (That's once
you get the music downloaded from the Web
or copied from CD's.)
The flattened-egg-shaped audio player
called the Personal Sport Audio (PSA) Play,
the result of a collaboration of the Nike
Techlab and Rio, has its controls -- play,
stop, forward and back -- on its smooth face
with symbols for key functions so highly
raised that users can press them through
the fabric of their pockets.
Curtis Milander, marketing manager for
the Nike Techlab, calls the approach blind
"You don't have to look at it to
operate it," Mr. Milander said. The PSA
Play is scheduled to be available later this
The MiniJam by InnoGear, scheduled for
release Aug. 1, is packed into a small module that plugs into a Handspring Visor handheld computer. Once in place, the device is
ready to store and play MP3's.
Engineers at PortalPlayer, a Santa Clara,
Calif., developer of audio hardware and
software, say they are building systems that
will allow portable players to record digital
music directly from a source, like a CD
player, without the need of a computer.
Currently, almost all portable digital
players must be plugged into a computer
that either downloads music in a compressed format like MP3, which is the most
popular, or the computer can translate music from CD's into a format like MP3, a
process called ripping. The files are then
copied and moved to the memory of a
"What we are saying is that with our
technology, all you have to do is press the
Record button on a player," said Michael J.
Maia, vice president of marketing for PortalPlayer.
Simpler digital players for
people who don't want to
fiddle with technology.
In the future, said Ron Boire, senior vice
president of portable audio for Sony Electronics, personal digital players may be
equipped with BlueTooth technology, an international standard that would allow devices like computers, electronic organizers
and mobile phones to exchange information
using radio waves. It would let consumers
wirelessly load music into their players.
"The goal is to make the technology as
seamless and transparent to the user as
possible," Mr. Boire said.
S3's Rio said it shipped 500,000 players
between November 1998, when the first Rio
player was introduced, and February 2000.
By the end of this summer, Mr. Reed said,
that figure is expected to double.
But industry executives and others who
follow the industry agree that if portable
digital audio players are going to find a
mass market -- customers other than those
between the ages of 16 and 24 -- the players
are going to have to offer mass appeal.
The first stumbling block -- storage -- is
being tackled on several fronts.
Practically all portable players store music on solid state memory chips, including
Compact Flash, Smart Media cards and
Sony's Memory Sticks.
While solid state memory chips are small,
run noiselessly and are reliable, they are
also expensive and appear to be growing
more so as demand begins to outstrip supply, manufacturers say.
One frustrated executive at an American
consumer electronics manufacturer said he
had traveled to Asia in an unsuccessful
search for a company that could make and
then sell the hardware components for a
digital audio player to his company for $1.
The reason? Much of the cost of a player,
which is passed to consumers, is consumed
by the cost of memory.
A digital player with memory that costs
less than $100 has eluded the marketplace.
Most players are sold with 32 megabytes
of embedded, often called "onboard," memory. A 32-megabyte memory card costs
about $100. And the rule of thumb is that a
player, like Samsung's Yepp player, requires about a megabyte of memory for
every minute of recorded MP3 music (at
Recording more music requires more
memory for storage, and the cost starts to
climb steeply, said Craig Rathbun, the
worldwide director of Clik technology for
Iomega, maker of disk-based removable
storage devices like the popular Zip and Jaz
The 32-megabyte memory cards used in
audio playersare "essentially $100 half-hour
albums," Mr. Rathbun said.
Iomega is taking a different approach by adapting its Clik
drives to digital audio players so that they
may use the 40-megabyte Clik disks to store
and play music.
Clik disks are not solid state and introduce moving parts into the players. But they
are cheaper than solid state memory, Mr.
A 40-megabyte Clik disk can cost as little
as $10. They are also rugged, Mr. Rathbun
said, as he held a handful of the half-dollar-size Clik disks, each containing a different
genre of music.
This month, the first digital player using
Clik technology, the Rave MP 2300 by Sensory Science, reached the market. Iomega
officials said seven players with built-in Clik
drives by other manufacturers -- including
one by Iomega itself -- are expected to be
available before the end of the year.
Rio is exploring alternatives to expensive,
solid-state flash memory for storing music
in its players.
Currently, the Rio 600, which is the first
player to seamlessly play music encoded in
the MP3 or Windows Media format, comes
with 32 megabytes of memory. A more
feature-laden Rio 800 is expected later this
summer, with 64 megabytes of included
Rio has also taken a novel approach to the
question of expanding the storage capabilities of its audio players. Earlier models like
the Rio 300 and Rio 500 use, as most players
do, a slot in which an expansion memory
card can be inserted, boosting the player's
overall capacity to play more music. But
such designs are limited, making it difficult
to add more than a 64-megabyte card to the
32 megabytes already built into the player.
The new Rio players are designed with
what its engineers call a backpack. It is a
slip-off and slip-on back that contains the
player's memory and power supply. The Rio
600, which costs $169, comes with a backpack with 32 megabytes built in and a single
AA battery to power the unit.
An additional 64-megabyte backpack
comes with a rechargeable battery. And
Rio, in partnership with I.B.M., will soon
release a backpack that will house a 340-megabyte I.B.M. Microdrive. Also in development is a Rio backpack equipped with a
new 500-megabyte drive by DataPlay.
While executives at S3's Rio division said
they were not ready to discuss the cost of
the backpacks with the minidrives, they
said the emerging memory technology
helps to make their new Rio players "future-proof."
And because the disk-based storage devices spin only to retrieve a song before
playing it from small embedded memory,
they do not greatly tax battery life or make
players more susceptible to skipping when
moved or bumped.
"I think we are turning the corner with
the release of the Rio 600 and other products
in the family," Mr. Reed said. He said Rio is
preparing to expand beyond the youth market.
S3's Rio division, as well as a number of
other consumer electronics companies, is
also preparing to release a line of home-based digital audio players that resemble
conventional stereo components.
released SongBank SL CD Memory System
by Lydstrom not only plays and records
CD's, but can also convert them into a
digital format and save them on the $800
machine's hard drive.
"When you look at the ways that people
listen to CD's today," Mr. Reed said, you
can pretty much count on us to replace that
CD technology in the future with our technology."