Getting wired: MP3 wins the ears of the public

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Getting wired: MP3 wins the ears of the public

As its rivals fall behind, it would appear that MP3 is the people's choice for digital music.

The original Diamond Rio MP3 portable was something of a specialised geek toy, but the standalone MP3 player it pioneered has certainly not remained in that ghetto. Today, there is a wide range of such players, many costing considerably less than the original Diamond unit.

Equally, things have moved on from the 32Mbytes of Ram that came with the Rio system. For example, top-of-the-range units now often use small, low-power hard discs to offer multigigabyte capacities.

Perhaps the ultimate in MP3 hipness is Apple's iPod. As well as up to 20Gbytes of storage and Apple's elegant styling, the iPod is notable for employing its Firewire serial technology - now known officially as the IEEE 1394 standard 4 - which allows 1,000 songs to be downloaded in 10 minutes, according to the company.

MP3 is finding its way into DVD players too. Since these are already decoding digital files, adding MP3 capability is a relatively small step. A good example of current systems is the Pioneer DV454-S system - at the time of writing, ranked number three in the electronics category of Amazon.co.uk. As well as all the usual DVD capabilities, this offers MP3 playback and on-screen navigation of MP3 files.

Such evolutionary developments of MP3 technology were to be expected, but others are more surprising. For example, recently I bought a basic hi-fi unit known as a micro system. The Thomson AM 148 is available from Argos for just under £100, and comes with radio, tape unit, CD player, and full MP3 playback compatibility.

What is striking about this system is not that it works so well - you just insert a CD-Rom containing MP3 files, move through the directories using the LCD display, select a file and press the play button - but that it exists at all. The fact that MP3 features are available on such a mainstream item is surely proof that MP3 has not only arrived in the home entertainment sector, but that it has won the digital music format battle.

To see this, it is instructive to consider the fate of two rival formats. The Secure Digital Music Initiative The Secure Digital Musical Initiative began work on its own compressed digital music standard at the beginning of 1999, but as its home page rather inelegantly puts it, it is now "on hiatus". Actually, "dead" would be a better way of phrasing it, since it has been "on hiatus" for nearly two years, and a new organisation, the Digital Media Device Association, has been set up in a desperate attempt to create a kind of zombie SDMI.

Microsoft's Windows Media format has fared rather better. Version 9 has just been announced, and Microsoft continues to push the format hard - helped by a growing installed base that comes free with upgrading Windows users. But it is striking that even Microsoft offers MP3 options (albeit as extra, paid-for packs).

Although very different, the respective fates of SDMI and Windows Media show that MP3 is the people's choice for digital music. In many ways, MP3 is like the internet: technologically it is far from perfect compared with honed proprietary systems, just as the early web was much cruder than Microsoft's original MSN online service. But, like HTML, is seems it is good enough for most people.

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This was first published in January 2003

 

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