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The MP3 Revolution

I was working at PC Pro magazine as Labs Editor in 1999 when the first commercially available MP3 player hit the scene. The Diamond Rio PMP300 caused a huge stir at the time, not least because the mere existence of an MP3 playback device had the big record companies quaking in their boots. Back then Benny was one of my team of writers and he practically begged to review the Rio, but was somewhat disappointed in what he found. Compared to what MiniDisc had to offer, the Rio was unwieldy, lacked capacity and was quite expensive. In fact, the 32MB of internal memory could only house around nine songs, which seemed like a poor return on your investment.

Of course the Diamond Rio was just the tip of the iceberg, and that rather uninspiring device paved the way for every digital music player that we use today. Despite the protestations of the recording industry, MP3 support grew and grew to the level where it became the default codec for compressed digital music. Many attribute the massive uptake of MP3 to the fact that it was a freely licensed codec, but that is far from true. In fact there has been an almost endless amount of wrangling over who should be paid a license fee for the use of the MP3 algorithm over the years. The real reason for the codec's success is its relative simplicity, and the fact that it could squeeze music down to miniscule levels.

With early MP3 players offering very little in the way of storage, and the cost of flash memory very high, you really needed to crunch your tracks down as far as possible to get even a modest music selection onto most devices. These small file sizes also made MP3 files ideal for distribution online, even with broadband in its infancy. And because the process of "ripping" a CD circumvents the Serial Copy Management System, the resulting MP3 files can be copied ad infinitum. Basically MP3 files are seen as digital data, just like any other type of computer file, so the scope for duplication and distribution is pretty much limitless.

In some respects it's unfortunate that MP3 has become the ubiquitous standard for digital music, since it's simply not a great codec from an audio quality standpoint. The ATRAC system for instance, produces far superior sound quality even using lower bit rates. But as always, Sony was very protective of its intellectual property, and encoding in ATRAC was only possible with Sony's own hardware and applications, resulting in meagre consumer uptake.
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The MemoryStick Walkman was one of many devices that Sony produced to address the growing support for MP3. Unfortunately the heavy handed DRM system and high cost of MemoryStick media meant that none of these devices saw any real success.

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Sony's decision to go with a closed standard did serious damage to the sales of its digital music players. Despite the fact that Sony portable players produce sound quality that's a cut above most of the competition, take up was low because the Japanese giant refused to allow MP3 playback on its devices. Compounding matters, Sony also implemented a bizarre check-in/check-out system in its SonicStage music management software, to stop end users from having their music on multiple devices simultaneously. With other devices offering far less restrictive usage models, Sony's dominance in the personal music player market came to an end.

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