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Thursday, December 3, 1998 Published at 07:14 GMT


Rio takes MP3 to the streets

The Rio is the shape of things to come for Internet music

By Internet Correspondent Chris Nuttall

The controversial Rio MP3 player will go on sale in the UK next week, with no sign of the British record industry imitating its American counterpart in appealing to the courts to ban it.

Chris Nuttall reports on the "forerunner of a technological revolution"
Some 1,500 Rio units are expected from Taiwan by the weekend and should be available in specialised computer shops by Monday. Bigger retailers, such as the Dixons group, could be selling the Rio by mid-month at less than £200.

The Rio went on sale in the States in Thanksgiving week, priced at around $200. It looks and sounds like an unassuming Walkman, although in a smaller, cigarette-packet size. But inside, the unit has no moving parts, with a 32MB flash memory card instead, capable of storing 74 minutes of high-quality music in the MPEG layer 3 compressed file format (around 30 minutes at the popular 128kbps rate).

Technological forerunner

The product is the first of its kind to go on sale in the High Street. A number of other manufacturers are preparing similar MP3 players in a leap forward that will make Internet music more readily available on the move and could lead to its mass acceptance.

Chris Nuttall reports for Radio 5 Live on the Rio
To date, MP3 usage has been largely confined to enthusiasts downloading music from the Internet and playing tracks at their computers from their hard drives. The fall in prices in recordable CD drives has made it easier for home users to burn their own compilation CDs of MP3 tracks.

But the Rio takes portability and the ease of transfer a step further. It connects to a parallel printer port for downloading the MP3 tracks. Favourite tracks from music CDs can also be encoded with the software and transferred from the CD-rom drive to the player for personal use. Flash memory cards can be swapped in and out.

With no moving parts, there is no skipping with any movement of the player and a single AA battery should power it for 12 hours.

Copyright concerns

The Recording Industry Association of America had argued in its court case that the Rio would boost the downloading of unauthorised MP3 files. It estimates there are 200,000 illegal tracks available over the Internet.

[ image: Rigg: Rio gives wrong message]
Rigg: Rio gives wrong message
The British music industry is also concerned about piracy and copyright infringements. British Music Rights, which is involved in, an experiment in Internet music licensing, says it wants to work with Diamond Multimedia, the Rio's maker, to ensure it encourages consumers to stay legal.

"The device looks like a radio, it's mimicking the sort of device [on which] you're used to hearing music for free. So it's commercially teaching a message that we don't want to be taught," says Nanette Rigg, BMR's director general.

Neil McGuinness, of Diamond's Northern Europe marketing team, says copyright protection can be provided with future upgrades.

"The reason why there is no copyright protection at the moment is that there is no standard in copyright. Any new technology can be downloaded onto the player and therefore we're upgradeable for the future should any new copyright procedure, of which there are many floating about at the moment, actually become a standard. We're ready for that and we'll embrace it fully."

MP3 players will get cheaper, better

The Rio may sell well given the huge amount of free publicity it has received from the court case. But potential buyers may be put off by the price and slow download times over the Internet.

Prices should fall dramatically as more competitors enter the market and conversions to MP3 from other formats such as Liquid Audio and Real Audio should soon be available. Up to 16 hours of speech playback is possible on the player, making it a potential boon for those wanting to listen to Net radio shows on the device.

[ image: Adar: Could fill Rio in seconds]
Adar: Could fill Rio in seconds
It may be possible to charge the players up in a matter of seconds from filling stations such as the Cerberus Digital jukeboxes fitted in Levis stores and other outlets around Europe. These use touch-screen computers to allow users to compile playlists and then have a CD burned automatically while they wait.

Cerberus managing director Ricky Adar sees the Rio as just another means of distribution:

"Although the endgame is going to be downloading from the Internet, we see that there are intermediate channels for distribution, one of them being making your own CDs, one of them being making your own minidiscs, one of them being uploading your Rio devices, your MPman devices, and other channels being traditional record shops going on selling records."

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