Technology - Circuits
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July 20, 2000

Hey, Walkman: Time to Face the Music on a Chip

New MP3 Devices Are Challenging Tape and CD Players


Tony Cenicola for The New York Times
Rio 600
by S3's Rio Division
Price: $169
Available: Now
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)

L 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.

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 of use.

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 customers.

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 copyright.

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 design.

"You don't have to look at it to operate it," Mr. Milander said. The PSA Play is scheduled to be available later this summer.

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 portable player.

"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 near-CD-quality sound).

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 cartridges.

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. Rathbun said.

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 memory.

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.

The newly 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."

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