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Last Updated: Monday, 26 January, 2004, 10:20 GMT
The downside of digital music - Where tech meets life, every Monday
By Mark Ward
BBC News Online technology correspondent

Gallery of mini iPods, Apple
You can fit a lot of music in a mini iPod
There's little doubt that 2004 is going to be the year of digital music.

Apple's iPod is proving hugely popular and many other hardware makers are releasing similar, if less stylish, gadgets that let you carry your entire music collection around with you.

And therein lies, for some people, a big problem.

Having a device that can store the music on the hundreds of CDs that you own is all very well but at some point you have to turn all those shiny discs into ones and zeros.

Time is money

And for some people that could take a long, long time.

For instance, if you have 300 CDs and, because you choose to make high quality conversions, each one takes about 10 minutes to rip, you will have to dedicate more than two days to creating MP3s for your iPod, Lyra Jukebox or Creative Nomad Jukebox.

Worse you can't leave your PC or Mac MP3 ripper running overnight. You have to keep going back to change the CD and kicking the program off again.

Perhaps one of the reasons that file swapping is so popular is because people would rather get ready-made MP3s of music they already own rather than take the time to rip the tracks themselves.

But the steady growth of digital music is bringing about services such as RipDigital which will convert CDs to MP3s for a little over a dollar per disc.

Putting CD into computer, BBC
You will have to do that a lot to convert all your CDs
RipDigital even sends packing materials so that customers can package CDs for despatch to the company, which then sends the MP3s back on a portable hard drive, along with the CDs themselves.

Although currently only available in the US, the company plans to expand to other countries as the spread of digital music devices spreads.

Dick Adams, co-founder of the service, says launching such a service has only become viable in the last few months.

Before now, he says, RipDigital has been used by professional and mobile DJs and other music industry workers, but now the growing popularity of portable music players is making it a viable business.

As is the time it takes to turn a collection of discs into MP3s or something similar.

"It can take a long time and people value their free time," he says. "When you calculate the cost of what we do its pretty low."

In the months since RipDigital formally launched, he said, it has converted tens of thousands of CDs.

Music movers

The idea for the service came about because Mr Adams and his co-founders were early converts to digital music but got tired of regularly re-converting their CD collection to higher quality MP3s as it got possible to store more and more of them on portable players.

A quirk of US law means that RipDigital cannot create a database of ripped tracks and simply transfer those to the hard disks they send back to customers.

Instead the company must rip each CD of each customer.

The service is proving particularly popular with many women who want the music but not the hassle of converting songs, says Mr Adams.

RipDigital is one example of the iPod-ification of the digital music world, says Mark Mulligan, senior analyst at Jupiter Research.

Mr Mulligan said all kinds of services were springing up that help people create, manage, move and listen to their digital music collection.

"You always get this when a new segment starts to take off," says Mr Mulligan.

But, he says, for all the success of the iPod it, and other portable digital music players, are still something of a niche product when compared to portable CD players.

Growth is only going to continue if the manufacturers of portable music players realise they have yet to hit the mainstream, he says.

One of the remaining problems to sort out is the format of the digital music that people listen to. Apple has picked the Advanced Audio Coding (AAC) standard and its early lead might mean that it becomes the default standard.

But many other services are backing Microsoft's Windows Media standard and for the moment music lovers are being left to choose. As Mr Mulligan says: "There is still a long way to go."

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