MP3 struggles beyond infancy

MP3 struggles beyond infancy

Music fans will trade in their portable CD players for MP3 and other compression-technology players . . . eventually, according to research from analyst IDC released in the US last week. But new devices will probably rely on something other than flash memory to store the music.

"When most people think of MP3 players, they think of Rio-type devices," said Brian Ma, senior analyst for IDC's consumer devices program. SonicBlue's Rio 600 retails for less than $US200, but it carries only 32MB of memory, about half an hour of music, he said, noting that the cost and capacity constraints of flash memory will turn consumers and vendors to cheaper alternative media.

One likely cheaper alternative is recordable CDs, which music fans can use to store MP3 files. While a CD bought from a record store contains about 75 minutes of music, a CD full of MP3s compressed to 128Kbps could carry about 11 hours, according to Ma. MP3 decoding capabilities are increasingly being added to traditional portable CD players, according to the report, predicting these hybrid players will outship devices designed to play only MP3-type files in the US by 2003.

Another alternative may be the use of emerging wireless technologies to access music files over the Internet. This technology will allow for the devices to shrink from a CD-player size to that of a cellular phone, but it would entail wireless-connection costs.

IDC predicts that worldwide shipments of compressed audio players - that is, MP3 players as well as devices for other formats from RealNetworks or Microsoft - will continue to grow at a torrid pace.

Manufacturers shipped 3.3 million compressed audio players worldwide last year and in 2005 they will ship nearly 26 million, according to the study. Most of those shipments will still be in the US, jumping to 18 million in 2005 from 2.8 million in 2000.

Most compressed audio players sold will be portable, but price and storage capacity will drive people to store and play MP3s on home computers. At 55 US cents per minute of storage on a 32MB chip, MP3 compares poorly to standard CDs at retail in record store for $US15 - about 20 US cents per minute on an hour-long disc. Burning MP3s at home is cheaper still. A $2 CD-R filled with standard-compression MP3s costs two-tenths of a cent per minute of storage, plus the cost of the CD-R drive, the time to burn the CD . . . and the cost of the music in the first place.

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