Even as the world's copyright watchdogs scramble to stem the overwhelming tide of near-CD-quality MP3 sound files on the Internet, savvy entrepreneurs are about to unleash a portable MP3 Walkman-style device that could change the way we listen to music.
It's called the MPMan, and if you believe its advocates, like the Walkman, which revolutionized the way music fans heard their favorite tapes on the run in the late '70s, it could be the digital equivalent of the new millennium.
Brian Matiash is already sold. He remembers the first time he heard about MP3 files like it was yesterday. It was October 1996, and Matiash, now 19, was walking across the campus of Syracuse University in upstate New York as his friend Josh Wardell explained how MP3 technology allows near CD-quality sound files to be transmitted across the Net in minutes. In that instant, Matiash was transformed as a music consumer -- he has since downloaded from the Web, free of charge, more than 2,000 songs in MP3 format. He said he rarely purchases new music on CD any more. But he did buy a CD burner so that he could archive the songs on compact disc (about 200 per CD).
With MPMan, Matiash could take his obsession in a whole new digitized direction.
Aware of the potential, he says he can't wait to get his hands on one of the palm-sized digital devices, manufactured by Saehan, a company spun off from Korean electronics giant Samsung. The MPMan allows Net-savvy music fans to download MP3 files onto their hard drives and then directly into the MPMan, which, in the 32-megabyte version, can hold 35 minutes or more of digital music files, depending on quality level.
Once removed from its cradle, the MPMan, which has no moving parts, can be transported without fear of skipping or signal disruption, since it uses flash memory instead of a cassette or compact disc.
Michael Robertson of the San Diego-based Z Company, a digital information provider that runs an MP3 information clearinghouse site (www.mp3.com) and is currently the only U.S. distributor of the MPMan, said he thinks the device could make the music industry rethink the way their product is marketed. "I think it will put a lot of pressure on the music industry to consider digital marketing, distribution and sales avenues," he said. "The classic analogy is software. There are many different ways that software is marketed and distributed and I think there's the same potential for music."
The 32-meg MPMan will retail for $299, while a 64-meg version, which can hold the rough equivalent of two CDs-worth of music, will run $459. The device, which weighs 65 grams without batteries, will come with a rechargeable battery that lasts nine hours and can be recharged when stored in its cradle. The MPMan is currently only PC-compatible.
Frank Creighton, associate director of anti-piracy for the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), said he's been following the development of MPMan, although he has not yet seen one, and he doesn't like what he's learned about the device.
"The MP3 player has no function other than playing material that was stolen from record companies," Creighton said. "I find it kind of interesting that they're marketing a device to play MP3s that costs between $200 and $400, when the whole culture surrounding MP3s revolves around people not wanting to pay for the MP3s themselves."
Looking to protect artists and record companies rights in an exploding digital media, Creighton said the industry is investigating how evolving technologies will affect distribution of music and considering digital downloads with encryption to preserve copyright.
Robertson said the devices, which will be available in the United States in May, currently have no copyright protection built in because "the industry hasn't decided on a copy protection scheme at this point."
Robertson said he sees no ethical quandary with the MPMan. "To say there is some ethical question is making the assumption that people are downloading songs without paying," he said. "I just don't think it's rational to look at it as an illicit device, because that's like saying a cassette deck is a bad thing because it can be used to copy a CD. This technology is not inherently bad or good, but it can be used for bad or good."
Already contemplating the effect of MP3s and MPMan technology, Paul Ashby, director of distribution, sales and marketing for the San Francisco-based music-label distributor Revolver Records, said there's a possibility his business might subtly shift over to the distribution of MP3s at some point. Ashby, who said he doesn't look at MP3s as a threat but is concerned about copyright and royalty issues, acknowledged that "there is just so much music out there, and there's just a finite amount of space for CDs and albums in retail. I think it's important to adapt to it and adopt it rather than have fear of it. People who showed a reluctance to get into the CD market 16, 17 years ago are no longer around."
Meanwhile, Matiash said his next step en route to becoming a fully-outfitted MP3 devotee is the MPMan. "I'm definitely going to buy one. I know that for a fact -- it's just when [that I don't know]," he said, with a watchful eye on the player's price tag, which Robertson said would likely go down quickly if demand was high. Matiash added that he hopes the music industry will soon start supporting the new technology.
Matiash's pal, Josh Wardell, a computer engineering major who maintains the "Pearl Jam MP3 Archive," said he also plans to buy one of the devices when the prices come down.
"The industry is going to hate it, and of course MP3 fans are going to love it, if they can scrounge up enough money to buy one," Wardell said. "It looks like it really can be something that might hit big ... I could see something like this really hurting the industry."